At the bottom of the stairs Briar stumbled into a mostly empty room with a floor that was sinking below its original foundation. It sagged and dipped, a foot or more at the room’s center and a few inches along its edges. Down there, coal was stashed in big mining carts that had been wheeled directly to their location through a tunnel cut into the brick.
The tunnel was surprisingly well lit, and since no other logical direction presented itself, Briar pushed past the carts with their black-dusted cargo.
There were no tracks in the tunnel, but the floor had been packed hard and paved with stones in places, so the carts could be rolled—possibly with the aid of machinery, or so Briar inferred from the scattered chains and cranks that were anchored in the walls and floors.
From beam to beam, long segments of knotted rope were strung up high, and, from the rope, glass lanterns hung in steel cages.
As if it were a trail of bread crumbs, Briar followed the rope as fast as she could push herself. She still held Maynard’s rifle out and ready to be lifted or fired, but it mostly swung underneath her arm as she ran. She saw no other people coming or going, and if the Chinamen were following her, they were doing so quietly. Nothing like the rumbling rush of feet echoed behind her, and nothing like voices, coughs, or laughter chimed out from her destination.
Perhaps fifty yards down the line, under the row of whichever businesses occupied the block, the tunnel split into four directions, each one covered by the same long leather or rubber-treated flaps that had curtained the hallway outside the bellows room.
She pushed the flaps aside a tiny crack, just enough to peer past them.
Two directions were lit; two were dark. One of the bright corridors resonated with an argument. The other was quiet. She hastily took the quieter lit passage and hoped for the best. But in another twenty feet, the passage dead-ended against an iron gate that could’ve held back a herd of elephants.
The gate stuck up out of the ground where its pilings had been buried somewhere far below, and deeply, for more than mere appearance. It leaned out at a determined angle, intended to repel some astonishing force with the pointed tips of its topmost pikes. On the other side of the leaning gate Briar saw a tight wooden wall wrapped with barbed wire. The timbers looked as if they’d once been on the ground, functioning as railroad ties, but there was a horizontal latch where an immense wooden arm could be levered up and out—and as Briar looked more closely, she could see cracks where a door was cut, or pressed, or jammed into place.
She grasped at the gate, feeling along its bars until her fingers fumbled at a lifting lock. It wasn’t fastened, only slipped into place so it was easy to move.
She gripped the latch and pulled, but the door didn’t budge.
So she pushed. It groaned forward, and a gust of air puffed into the underground chamber. Briar didn’t need to smell the gas through the mask or look through her fragment of polarized lens to know it was there.
On the other side, she found a set of stone stairs. The stairs led up and out, but no farther down.
She didn’t give herself time to change her mind or look for another way through the situation. Up on the street she could get her bearings. She flattened herself sideways and squeezed past a wooden door onto the stairwell. She used her backside to push the door shut and lifted the rifle again, forcing her hands to steady and her attention to focus, because here she was, in Seattle proper. Inside the wall, with the terrible things that were trapped within it, and terrible people, too, for all she knew of it.
The rifle made her feel safer. She squeezed it hard and silently thanked her late father for his taste in firearms.
Up the steps she couldn’t see a thing except for a sharp rectangle of hard ash gray, and it wasn’t even the gray of the sky. It was the permanent dusk imposed by the height of the wall, its shadow blocking out even the weak, drizzling sunlight that came for a few hours each day during the winter.
“What street is this?” Briar asked herself. Her own voice wasn’t much more comfort than the rifle. “What street?”
Something was odd about the door, she thought, but it didn’t occur to her until she was past it that there had been no external latch, knob, or even a lock. It was a door designed to keep people out unless they had the permission of those already secured there.
It almost gave her a flash of panic, knowing that now, even if she needed to, she could not retreat. But retreat wasn’t part of the plan, anyway.
The plan was up. The plan was to reach the street, scout for street markers, acquire her bearings, and then set out for… Where? Well. There was always home.
The house on the side of the hill hadn’t been home for very long, only a few months; and since she now knew there were people inside the wall, she could safely bet that the house had been raided for the bulk of its valuables. But there might be something useful remaining. Leviticus had made so many machines, and he’d hidden so much of his best and favorite devices in tricky, closed-off rooms that might’ve gone overlooked.
And besides—she knew nothing of Ezekiel’s plans except that he’d wanted to see his father’s laboratory and hunt for exonerating evidence there.
Did Ezekiel even know where the house was located?
Briar rather thought that he didn’t; but then again, she’d also thought he couldn’t get inside the city, and she’d been quite wrong on that point. He was a resourceful boy; she had to give him that. Her wisest course of action might be to simply assume that he’d succeeded.
While she lurked at the bottom of the chipped stone stairs, down in the darkness as if she were sitting in a well, Briar slowly caught her breath and found her psychic footing. No one shoved the door open and discovered her. Not a sound reached her ears—not even the clanging racket of the machine works in the building at her back.
It might not be so bad.
She leaned one booted toe forward and placed it quietly on the nearest stair. The second step was climbed with equal slowness and silence. While her mask-impaired side vision permitted it, Briar watched the door behind her shrink as she rose.
She’d heard stories about the rotters, and she’d seen a few of them in the first days after the Blight broke, but how many could possibly be left inside the city? Surely at some point they would die, or fail, or decay, or simply succumb to the elements. They must be in terrible shape, and weak as kittens if they still crawled or shambled.
Or that is what she told herself as she climbed.
Bending her knees to crouch, she kept her head below the crest of the stairwell until the last possible moment, and then she craned her neck to see without exposing herself to whatever might wait above.
More dark than bright, the city was not quite so bleak that she’d need a light, but it wouldn’t be long before the tar-thick shadows of the walls and the roofs would cast the whole scene into early midnight.
The street crumbled at Briar’s eye level, slick and muddy from rainwater and Blight runoff. Its bricks split and spread. The whole surface was uneven and lumpy, and it was littered with debris. Carts sprawled overturned and broken; the mostly dismembered and long-decayed corpses of horses and dogs were scattered into piles of sticky bones, loosely connected by stringy, green-gray tissue.
Briar swiveled her head slowly left, then right. She couldn’t see far in any direction.
Between the dimness and the concentrated, thickened air, no more than half a block could be discerned at once. Which way the streets ran, there was no telling. North and south, east and west, none of it meant anything without the sun to guess it by.
Not even the faintest gust of air ruffled Briar’s hair, and she couldn’t hear the water, or the birds. Once upon a time there had been birds by the thousands, most of them crows and seagulls, all of them loud. Together the tribes had made a mighty racket of feathers and clacking calls, and the silence without them was strange. No birds, no people. No machines or horses.
Leading with her left hand, Briar crept up and out of her hole on leather-soled feet that didn’t make a sound to disturb the disturbing silence.
Finally she stood out in the open, close against the building beside the stairs.
The only sound was the rustle of her own hair against the straps and sides of the face mask, and when she quit moving, even that faint tickle of noise ceased.
She was standing on an incline, and she could see a place downhill where the incline increased sharply—dropping off and out of sight. At the edges of the drop-off, there were stalls filled with empty bins. And off to the side, and up, as Briar explored the scene with her eyes, she saw the remains of a half-toppled sign and an enormous clock without any hands.
And this must be… “The market. I’m near Pike Street.”
She almost said it aloud, but then merely mouthed the observation. The street made a dead end at the market, and on the other side of the market was the Sound—or it would’ve been, if the wall hadn’t cut the shoreline away from it.
The building at her back must face Commercial Avenue, the street that once ran alongside the ocean and now ran alongside the wall.
For the next few blocks, any of the streets that paralleled Pike would take her in roughly the direction she’d chosen.
She hugged close to the building, aiming rifle and eyes up and down the street as she shuffled sideways. Breathing inside the mask hadn’t become any easier, but she was growing accustomed to it and there was no alternative, anyway. Her chest was sore from the extra effort her muscles were making to inflate and deflate her lungs, and down at one corner of her left eyepiece, the view was getting foggy from condensation.
Heading uphill ever so slightly, she worked her way away from the wall, which she couldn’t even see. Briar knew that its tall blank shadow reached up into the sky, but it vanished from view far sooner and it was easy to forget, especially when she’d turned away from it.
Through her head ran endless calculations. How far was she from the lavender house on the hill? How long would it take to reach it if she ran? If she walked? If she skulked like this, squeezing between the tendrils of low-lying, stinking fog?
She flexed her cheek, trying to shake the condensation and make it gather or roll.
It didn’t work. The vapor clung to the mask.
She sighed, and a second sigh gave it a funny echo.
Confused, she shook her face. It must have been a trick of the straps, or the way the device fit around her forehead. It could’ve been her hair, brushing against the exterior. It might’ve been her boots, scraping unexpectedly against a jagged paving stone. The sound could’ve come from anywhere. It was so quiet, anyway. Hardly a sound at all, really.
Her feet wouldn’t move. Neither would her arms, or her hands, locked around the rifle. Even her neck would barely turn, lest she recreate the noise, or fail to. The only thing worse than hearing it again would be hearing it again and knowing it hadn’t come from her own careful movements.
So slowly that even her long coat didn’t tap itself against her legs, Briar retreated, feeling with her heels, praying that there was nothing behind her. Her heel found a curb, and stopped there.
She stepped up onto it.
The sound came again. There was a whistle to it, and a moan. It was almost a hiss, and it could’ve been a strangled gasp. Above all, it was quiet, and it seemed to have no source.
Briar tried to place the sound, and she decided, now that she’d heard it again and could be certain she hadn’t imagined it, that it came from somewhere to her left, down toward the wall. It was coming from the street stalls where nothing had been bought or sold in almost sixteen years.
The whisper rose to a hum, and then stopped.
Briar stopped too—or she would have, if she hadn’t already. She wanted to freeze herself further, to make herself inaudible and invisible, but there was nowhere to hide—not in her immediate range of vision. The deep old stalls were behind her. All the doors were barred with boards nailed tight around them, and all the windows had likewise been covered. The corner of a stone building pressed against her shoulder when she leaned away from the market.
The noise stopped.
This new kind of quiet was even more frightening than the old kind, which was simply empty. Now it was worse, because the foggy, cluttered landscape was not merely silent. Now it was holding its breath, and listening.
Briar removed her left hand from the rifle and reached backward until she touched the corner. Finding it, and feeling it, she guided herself to the far side of the building. It was no real protection, but it put her out of the market’s line of sight.
The mask was squeezing tight around her face. The condensation on one side was driving her to distraction, and the smell of rubber and toast clogged her throat.
She needed to sneeze, but she chewed on her tongue until the feeling passed.
Around the corner, the whispered wheeze rustled through the calm.
It halted, then began again, louder. And then it was joined by a second hacking gasp, and a third, and then there were too many to count.
Briar wanted to crush her eyes closed and hide from the noises, but she couldn’t even take a moment to peer around the side of the building to see what was making the cacophony, because it was escalating. There was nothing she could do but run.
The middle of the road was mostly clear, so she took it, weaving between the overturned carts and leaping past slabs of earthquake-loosened walls that had collapsed into the road.
Silence was no longer an option.
Briar’s feet smacked against the bricks and her rifle slapped up and down on her hip as she charged downhill, even though she’d meant to go the other direction. She couldn’t run uphill; she didn’t have enough air to struggle any harder. So down, then. Down the hill but not—she thought in a flickering moment of hope—strictly the wrong direction. She was running alongside the wall, and alongside the water behind it. Commercial would go down, yes—but it flanked the hill all the same and she could follow it as far as she needed.
She risked a glance, and then a second glance, and then she stopped trying, because she’d been terribly, terribly wrong—and they were coming in fast.
Those two quick looks had told her everything she needed to know: Run, and for heaven’s sake, don’t stop.
They were not quite on her heels. They were rounding the corner in a loping, ludicrous hobble that was shockingly fast despite the awkward gait. More naked than clothed, and more gray than the proper color of living flesh, the rotters pressed a rollicking lurch that tumbled in a wave. They rolled forward, over everything, past everything, around everything that might have otherwise slowed them down.
Without fear and without pain, they beat their ragged bodies against the litter in the street and bounced away from it, not deterred and not redirected. They smashed through water-weakened wood and stomped through the corpses of animals, and if any other rotters tripped or fell they crawled a vicious assault over the bodies of their own.
Briar remembered all too well those first sad, shambling people who’d been poisoned by the Blight. Most of the victims had died outright, but a few had lingered—and they’d groaned, and gasped, and consumed. They had no other thoughts beyond consuming, and they wished for nothing but fresh, bloody flesh. Animals would suffice. People were preferred, insomuch as the rotters had any preference for anything.
And right then, they had no preference for anything but Briar.
The first time she’d taken a backward look, she’d seen four. The second time, a half moment later, she’d seen eight. God only knew how many were on her tail by the time she’d reached the next road down.
She stumbled over a curb and hit the walkway running.
In passing, she saw a line of tall letters engraved into the surface of the sidewalk, but she was moving too quickly to read it so she didn’t know which cross street she’d passed. It didn’t matter. The cross street was heading up the hill, and she never would have made it.
Her air was already too low, from even such a short and incline-assisted flight. Her throat was burning from the stress of it, and she had no idea how long she could continue. Her slim lead shrank as she dodged and ducked through the fog.
A narrow iron pole zipped past her vision, followed closely by a second one.
It was a ladder for a fire escape, or so she realized only when it was entirely too late to grab it and begin climbing.
She couldn’t decide if the missed opportunity was just as well or not. It might only exhaust her further, trying to rise so drastically above the fray; but then again, it might have saved her. Could the rotters follow her up?
The gargling gasps of their furious hunger hit closer to Briar’s ears, and she knew they were gaining ground. It wasn’t only that they were quick. It was that she was slowing, and there was nothing she could do to move herself harder. Try as she might, she couldn’t pant or puff, and there was only so much escaping she could do.
The mist never parted, but it thinned in spots and thickened in others. For one revealing second the side of another building came into view and another iron ladder blinked into range.
Briar almost didn’t see it. The fog at her left eye nearly hid it.
She didn’t have time to reconsider or weigh the pros and cons; she just seized the ladder, jerking herself to a stop against her own inertia. She locked her hands around the ladder’s legs and pulled with all her weight.
Her feet kicked against the wall and against the bottommost rungs, then they caught footing enough to scramble up one step.
The closest rotter missed her boots, but snagged her father’s duster and gave it a yank.
Briar’s gloved hands slipped and skidded on the rungs, but she clamped down hard and held her position. She wrenched her arms up under the rusty bars and anchored herself so she could kick, and kick she did. She couldn’t hope to harm the things, but she could push them back or break their fingers—anything to force them to let go.
She couldn’t rise with the rotter’s weight dragging on the coat, so they hung there, suspended, as the rest of the horde swarmed in for the kill.
Briar swung her body back and forth, trying to shake the thing loose. Its elbows and skull thunked dully against the wall and made a little twanging echo when they hit the metal ladder.
Finally, some magically lucky combination of kicks and shakes cast the beast down to his fellows. The other rotters tried to step on him to give themselves more reach as they grabbed with their bony, chewed-looking hands, but Briar was high enough that they couldn’t reach her unless they scaled the rungs.
But could they?
She didn’t know, and she didn’t look. She only climbed, one hand up, one foot up. Other hand up, other foot up. Soon she was beyond the grasp of even the tallest, longest-armed monstrosity. But there was no stopping, not yet. Not when the shaking and rattling of the ladder suggested that yes, they would follow—or, if not follow, they would pull the ladder off the wall and bring her back to them. As far as the rotters were concerned, there was no such thing as a “hard way.”
Bolts on either side of Briar’s head began to squeal as they split and tugged away from their moorings.
“Oh God,” she gasped, and might’ve used worse language if she’d had any breath to do so. Up ahead, the ladder’s destination was obscured by the yellowish stain of the fog. It might end in ten feet, or in ten floors for all Briar knew.
Ten floors were not an option. She’d never make it.
The ladder swayed and popped with a terrifying jolt, and one supporting rail gave way. Before she could be swung out over the street, Briar slapped a hand down on the nearest window ledge and hung on—her grip split between the wide stone sill and the remaining leg of the ladder. The ladder was swaying and bending, and she would not have it long.
Under her arm, the rifle clattered against the sill.
She braced as much of her weight as she dared on the wobbling rungs, let go of the sill, and swung the rifle around hard. It exploded through the glass, and Briar barely had enough balance to hang on as she leaped toward the window.
Her leap failed, and only her right leg made the catch.
Splinter-sharp shards dug into the underside of her leg, but she ignored them and tightened her thigh to pull herself closer to the window.
Locked that way, half inside and half outside, she brought the rifle around and pointed it down. One bald and deeply scarred head reared into view, and Briar thanked God that she’d loaded the gun while she had the chance.
She fired. The head split and exploded, and bright brown bits splattered against her gas mask. Until the bloody flecks of bone slid down her lenses, she hadn’t known that the thing had made it so close.
Right behind the first rotter was a second, pushing its way higher.
It didn’t get very far. Its left eye burst into a watery splatter of brains and bile and it fell away, leaving one of its half-decomposed hands behind it, still clinging to the rung. The third rotter was farther down the ladder, and it took Briar two shots to knock it away: The first grazed the thing’s forehead, and the second one caught it in the throat and broke the important bones that held its head in place. The jaw dropped down and fell off just as the head lolled back and snapped free.
Rotter number three’s downward fall forcibly removed number four from the climb, and rotter number five’s face shattered when a bullet went up its nose.
More were coming, but the ladder was cleared. Briar took the brief respite to haul herself into the broken window. Small slivers of glass still stung in her leg, but there was no time yet to remove them, not when more rotters were figuring out the joy of climbing.
She braced herself from the inside and reached out with her rifle, not firing again but using it as a lever against the half-ruined bolts that held the iron structure in place. One side was already gone, and the second one screeched and stretched as she worked the rifle back and forth, wiggling the old bolts loose until they abandoned their moorings. Slowly, but without any real protest, the ladder came leaning away from the building until the angle was too steep to hold it anymore, and it collapsed.
Rotters six through eight went down with it, but did not stay down, and there were more behind them.
They writhed and raged below, three stories below by Briar’s count.
She retreated from the window and tried to catch her breath—which was a permanent activity, now; then she twisted herself around to pick at the glass that had lodged in her leg.
She winced as she smoothed the back of her pants. She hated to expose any skin to the Blight, but she couldn’t feel the damage without removing her gloves. She pulled the right one free and did her best to ignore the slimy wet air.
It could’ve been worse.
She didn’t find anything bigger than a sunflower seed. There was hardly any blood, but the broken fabric let the Blight irritate the scratches, and it stung more fiercely than it should have. If she’d had bandages, or wraps, or any other stray and clean piece of fabric she would’ve wrapped the minor injury. But she had nothing, and there was nothing to be done except to make sure it was free of glass.
This having been established, she took a moment to examine her surroundings.
She had not landed in the top floor of anything, as the staircase at the far wall demonstrated; and at one point in time her stopping place had almost certainly been a hotel. On the floor in front of the window there was a great smattering of broken glass, some of which had landed on a battered old bed with a brass headboard that had gone a nastily tarnished brown. A half-broken nightstand crouched against a wall, two drawers out on the floor, and a basin with a broken pitcher had fallen over in the corner.
The floor creaked when she stepped across it, but the noise was no worse than the rumbling havoc outside, where more rotters were collecting, having been drawn by the cries of the others. Eventually they would break their way in, more likely than not; and eventually the filters in Briar’s mask would clog, and she’d suffocate.
But Briar could worry about these things later. For the moment, she was safe. Or at least, she was safer than she had been a handful of moments before. Her definition of “safe” was increasingly flexible.
Looking out the window, she could see an intersection below, where Commercial met some other thoroughfare coming down the hill. Rotters swarmed over the spot on the corner where the street’s name would be marked. It didn’t matter which one it was; it didn’t matter that she hadn’t caught the engraving in the ground to tell her more precisely. The streets were impossible now. Perhaps they’d been impossible for sixteen years. But she’d given it a go, and it had been her best effort. She’d been quiet and she’d been careful, and it hadn’t been enough. So this was it, then. The streets were navigated the same as the wall.
Over or under. It would cost too much to go straight through.
Briar went to the stairwell and pushed aside the door that had dropped from its hinges. Surely it went up no more than another floor or two. She’d go up, first, and see what it looked like from there.
Inside the stairwell it was purely and perfectly dark. The noise of the rotters outside was muffled until it was almost absent, and she could almost forget they were out there, loudly waiting and demanding her bones.
But not quite. Their arguments vibrated in her ears and tugged at her attention, no matter how hard she tried to push them out. Behind her eyes she remembered too clearly the peeling, gray fingers that had clung disembodied to the ladder—persistent to the very last.
Her composure was returning, and with it, her breathing was slowing as she paced herself, scaling the stairs with a measured speed that let her body catch up and adjust.
At the top of the stairs she found a door that opened onto the roof; and on the roof were a few signs of recent life. A broken pair of goggles had been kicked into a corner. A discarded bag had been crumbled and left to soak in a puddle of tar and water. Footprints smudged in coal crossed here and there.
She followed the footprints to the roof’s edge. They disappeared on the ledge, and she wondered if the rooftop pedestrians had jumped or fallen. Then she saw the next building over. It was a taller structure by one full story, and there was a window on perfect parallel with the spot where she stood. This window had been boarded over with two doors that had been pieced together to form one much longer plank; and this plank was fastened up against the other building—left there like a drawbridge, to be lowered or raised depending on the necessity and danger.
Below, one of the rotters had followed her around to the far side. It looked up with a revolting moan, and soon it was joined by more undead with similar intentions. In a matter of minutes, the whole building would be surrounded by them.
As far as Briar could tell, the other building was wholly unoccupied. The windows were boarded or blank, with thin, sloppily drawn curtains and nothing moving on the other side of them.
She might have better luck downstairs. She’d emerged in the city through the underground, so underground might be the best way to travel.
Not very far away, and directly beneath her, something splintered and broke. The moans increased in their intensity, from added numbers and fresh agitation.
Briar reached for her satchel and hastily reloaded. If the rotters had breached the building, she might have to shoot her way through them on the way to the basement.
Her hands paused as they held the canister of shells, but only briefly.
If she went downstairs and they came behind her, she’d be trapped there.
She recommenced loading the rifle, and fast. Trapped downstairs, trapped upstairs. The differences were small, and she was damned either way. Better to keep her gun ready and her options open.
The cacophony escalated, and Briar wondered if she hadn’t already lost the option of seeking a subterranean escape. She locked the cartridges into place and took another look over the edge.
On the street the swarm gathered and clotted. The number of rotters had at least tripled, more than making up for the small handful she’d dispatched on her way up the hotel’s exterior.
She did not see anyplace where they’d found entry. They did not disappear one by one or even in clumps to resume their pursuit; instead they flung themselves at the bricks and the boards, but made no progress.
Again there came a crashing noise and the telltale shattering of damp wood.
Where was it? And what was causing it?
The rotters howled and staggered. They also heard the breaking commotion and sought its source, but they were unwilling to leave Briar, who felt very much like a bear that had been treed.
“You, up on the Seaboard Hotel! Are you wearing a mask?”
The voice shocked her worse than the rotters had. It burst out loud and hard, with a tinny edge that made it sound both foreign and loud. The words carried up from somewhere below, but not all the way down in the street.
“I said, hey up there—you on the Seaboard. You on the roof. Have you got a mask or are you dying?”
Briar hadn’t seen any indication that this was the Seaboard, but she couldn’t imagine who else the voice could be addressing. So she answered, as loud as she could, “Yes! I’ve got a mask!”
“I said, I’ve got a mask!”
“I can hear you, but I can’t understand you for shit—so I hope that means you’ve got a mask! Whoever you are, get down and cover your goddamned ears!”
She looked frantically back and forth across the small sea of rotters, seeking the source of the instructions. “Where are you?” she tried to shout back, and it was ridiculous because she knew that wherever the speaker was, he’d never catch the question over the roiling symphony of the undead on the street.
“I said,” the low voice with the metallic edge repeated, “get down and cover your goddamned ears!”
Across the road, looking out from another broken window in another broken building, Briar glimpsed motion. Something bright and blue glimmered sharply, then winked out—only to be followed by a brighter light and a high-pitched, whirring hum. The hum carried up through the Blight and whistled past her hair, delivering a determined warning directly into her brain.
She didn’t need to be told a third time.
She ducked, flinging herself into the nearest corner and throwing her arms up over her head. Her elbows clenched tight around her ears and muffled them, but it wasn’t enough to keep out the needle-sharp wheedling of the electric whine. She pulled up her satchel and wrapped it around her skull, and she was still holding that position, facedown against the tar paper and bricks, when a blast pulsed through the blocks with a gut-turning pop that lasted far too long to be the report of a gun.
When the worst of the shattering, thundering audio blow had dissipated, Briar heard the almost-mechanical voice gargle out another set of instructions, but she couldn’t hear it and she couldn’t move.
Her eyes were jammed shut, her arms were locked around her head, her knees were fixed in place beneath her body, and she couldn’t budge any of them. “I can’t,” she whispered, trying to convey, “I can’t hear you,” but her jaw was stuck, too.
“Get up now! GET UP, NOW!”
“You have about three minutes to get your ass up and get down here before the rotters get their bearings back, and when that happens, I’m going to be gone! If you want to stay alive in here, you need me, you crazy bastard!”
Briar muttered, “Not a bastard,” at the distinctly masculine tirade. She tried to focus her irritation and turn it into a motive to move. It worked no better and no worse than the screamed demands with their monstrous inflections.
Joint by joint she unfixed her arms and legs, and she stuttered to her knees.
She dropped to them again in order to retrieve the rifle, which had slid down off her shoulder. Heaving that shoulder to retrieve the strap, she once again forced her boots up underneath herself. Her ears were ringing with that horrible sound, and with the horrible cries of the man down on the street—he wouldn’t stop yelling, even though she’d lost her capacity to understand him. She couldn’t stand, walk, and listen at the same time, not so shaken as she was.
Behind her, the door to the stairwell was still open, sagging on its latch.
She fell against it, and nearly fell down the subsequent steps. Only her momentum and her instinct for balance kept her upright and moving forward. Her body swayed and tried to tumble, but the longer she remained on her feet, the easier it became to stay that way. By the time she’d reached the first floor she was almost running again.
Down in the lobby, all the windows were covered and it was darker than midnight except for the spots where slivers of the dim afternoon light leaked drably through the cracks. As Briar’s eyes corrected themselves to account for the dark, she saw that the desk was covered with dust and the floor was crisscrossed with more black footprints.
There was a big front door with a massive plank across it.
Briar yanked it up and rattled the door’s handles.
The panic she felt was amazing. She would’ve sworn that she’d exhausted her store of manic fear, but when the door wouldn’t budge she felt another surge. She shook it and tried to yell through it, “Hello? Hello? Are you out there?”
Even to her own ears the cry was garbled. No one on the other side could possibly hear it, and it was stupid of her, anyway—she should’ve gone back downstairs and risked another ladder. Why had she gone all the way to the ground floor? What had she been thinking?
Her head was humming with leftover pain and her eyes were swimming with static.
“Help me, please, get me out of here!”
She beat the door with the butt of her rifle, and it created a magnificent racket.
Seconds later, another racket met it from the other side.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? Should’ve gone down the outside!” the shouty voice accused.
“Tell me about it,” she grumbled, relieved to hear the other person even though she didn’t know if he planned to help her or kill her on sight. Whoever he was, he’d gone to trouble enough to make contact, and that was something. Wasn’t it?
She said, louder, “Get me out of here!”
“Get away from the door!”
Having learned her lesson about responding fast, she sidestepped her way around the hotel’s front desk. A new and catastrophic crash bowed the front door inward, but didn’t break it. A second assault cracked the thing’s hinges, and a third took it clear off the frame.
An enormous man hurtled through it, then dragged himself to a stop.
“You—” He pointed and stopped himself midthought. “Are a woman.”
“Very good,” Briar said, wobbling out from behind the desk.
“All right. Come with me, and do it fast. We haven’t got a minute before they start reviving.”
The man with the tinny voice was speaking through a helmet that gave his face the shape of a horse’s head crossed with a squid. The mask ended in an amplifier down front, and it split into two round filters that aimed off to either side of his nose. The contraption looked heavy, but then again, so did the man who was wearing it.
He wasn’t fat at all, but he was nearly as wide as the doorway—though the effect was enhanced by his armor. His shoulders were plated with steel, and a high, round collar rose up behind his neck to meet the helmet. Where his elbows and wrists bent, makeshift chain mail functioned as joints. Across his torso, thick leather straps held the whole thing taut and close.
It was as if someone had taken a suit of armor and made it into a jacket.
“Lady, we haven’t got all night,” he told her.
She began to say that it wasn’t night, yet, but she was winded and worried, and irrationally glad for the company of this heavily armed man. “I’m coming,” she said. She stumbled and knocked against his arm, then righted herself.
He didn’t grab her to help, but he didn’t push her away, either. He only turned around and headed back out the door.
She followed. “What was that thing?” she asked.
“Questions later. Watch your step.”
The street and walkways were littered with the tangled, twitching, growling bodies of rotters. Briar’s first steps took trouble to avoid them, but her escort was outpacing her, so she abandoned the approach and moved from corpse to corpse without regard for where her feet might land. Her boots broke arms and stomped through ribcages. Her heel landed too close against a dead woman’s face and scraped down her skull, dragging a sheet of flaky skin with it and leaving the flesh wiped upon the stones.
“Wait,” she begged.
“No waiting. Look at them,” he said, as he too disregarded the quivering rotters.
Briar thought it was a ridiculous instruction. She couldn’t help but look at them; they were everywhere—underfoot and down the road, flattened against curbs and leaning against bricks with their tongues lolling and their eyes fluttering.
But she thought she understood the armored man’s meaning. Animation was returning to their limbs. Their jerking hands moved harder, and with more deliberation. Their kicking feet were twisting and turning, trying to work themselves up to a standing position. Every second that passed, they gathered their wits—such as they were—or at least gathered their intuitive sense of motion.
“This way. Faster.”
“That’s not good enough.” He threw back a hand and seized her wrist. He yanked her forward, lifting her as lightly as a toddler over another stack of restless, prone rotters.
One of the gruesome things held up a hand and tried to grab Briar’s ankle.
She kicked at its twiggy arm but she missed, because the man in the mask shifted his grip on her wrist and pulled again, past one last clump of bodies where a rotter was sitting up and moaning, trying to rouse its brethren.
“All right, it’s a straight shot now” the man said.
“A straight shot to what?”
“To the underground. Hurry. This way.”
He indicated a stone-faced structure adorned with the mournful statues of owls. A legend across the front door declared that the place had once been a bank. The front door was nailed shut with the remains of shattered shipping crates, and the windows were covered with bars.
“How do we—?”
“Stay close. Up, then down.”
Around the side there were no helpful fire escapes with dangling ladders, but when Briar looked up she could see the underside of a rickety balcony.
The man in the steel jacket pulled an ugly hooked hammer out from his belt and tossed it up. It trailed a long hemp rope behind it, and when it snagged somewhere above, the man yanked on the rope and a set of stairs unfolded. They clanked down with all the loud, rhythmic grace of a drawbridge descending too quickly.
He caught the bottom stair and strained to hold it low. It hung at Briar’s waist level.
Briar nodded and slung her rifle over her back, freeing both hands for climbing.
It wasn’t fast enough to suit the man, who reached up with one broad palm and heaved it against her rear. The added jolt boosted her enough to fasten both hands and both feet securely onto the structure, so she wasn’t prepared to make any complaints about the ungentlemanly gesture.
Her body’s weight was pendulum enough to hold the stairs in a hovering position over the street. When the man’s weight joined hers, the whole structure creaked and jerked, but held steady. The folding stairs did not wish to hold them both, and they made their displeasure known with every ominously squeaking step.
Briar tuned it out and climbed, and the stairs rose up underneath her like a seesaw as the man behind her caught up to her heels.
He patted at the back of her boot to get her attention. “Here. Second floor. Don’t break the windoiv. It lifts out.”
She nodded and hauled herself off the steps, onto the balcony. The window was barred but not blockaded. Down at the bottom, a wooden latch had been affixed. She pried it up and the window popped out of its frame.
The man joined her on the balcony, and the steps bounced up behind him. Having lost their counterweight, the springs that dropped and lifted it coiled back into place and remained firm, holding the stairs beyond the reach of even the tallest rotters with the longest arms.
Briar lowered her head, turned herself sideways, and wiggled inside.
The armored man squeezed himself in after her. Much of the urgency had drained away from him; once he was above the rotters and safely inside the old bank building, he relaxed and took a moment to adjust his accoutrements.
He unhooked his armor and stretched his arms, and cracked his neck from side to side. The clawed hammer with the rope required rewinding, so he twisted it between his palm and his elbow until it made a loop, and then he clipped it back onto his belt. He reached into a holster over his shoulder and set aside a tube-shaped device that was longer than his thigh. It was shaped like a huge gun, but the trigger was a brass paddle and there was a grate across the barrel that was not altogether different from the grate in his mask.
Briar asked, “Is that what made the noise? The one that stunned the rotters?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “This is Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer, or plain old ‘Daisy’ for short. It’s a mighty piece of equipment and I’m proud to call it mine, but it has its limitations.”
“Three minutes, give or take. That’s right. The power supply’s in the back end.” He pointed to the handle, wrapped with tiny copper pipes and slender glass tubes. “It takes forever to charge the thing back up again.”
“Well, about a quarter of an hour. Depending.”
He said, “Static electricity. Don’t ask me any more than that, because I don’t know the particulars.”
She politely admired the blasting device. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Who’s this Dr. Minnericht?”
“He’s an ass, but sometimes he’s a useful ass. So now I have to ask, who are you and what are you doing here, in our fine and filthy city?”
“I’m looking for my son,” she dodged the first half of his question. “I think he came here yesterday; he came up through the old water runoff tunnels.”
“Tunnels are closed” he said.
“Now they are, yes. Earthquake.” She leaned against the windowsill and sat there, too exhausted to bother with too many words. “I’m sorry,” she said, and she meant it for a variety of reasons. “I’m so… I knew about the city—I knew it was bad in here. I knew, but…”
“Yeah, it’s that ‘but’ that’ll kill you if you’re not careful. So you’re looking for your boy.” He checked her up and down. “How old are you?” he asked outright, since he couldn’t see her face very well behind her mask.
“Old enough to have a son who’s dumb enough to come in here,” she countered. “He’s fifteen. Have you seen him?”
“He’s fifteen—that’s the best description you got?”
“How many random fifteen-year-old boys can this place possibly get in a week?”
The man shrugged. “You might be surprised. We get a lot of stragglers from the Outskirts coming in here, looking to steal or barter, or learn how to process the Blight for sap. Course, most of ’em don’t live too long.”
Even through her visor, the man saw Briar’s eyes narrow. He quickly added, “I don’t mean your kid didn’t make it; that’s not what I’m saying. He only got here yesterday?”
“Well, if he’s lived this long he might be all right. I haven’t seen him, but that doesn’t mean he ain’t here. How’d you get inside?”
“I hitched a ride with a sky captain.”
“Look.” She stopped him with a worn-out wave of her hand. “Can we talk? Can we do this somewhere else? I need to get out of this mask,” she pleaded. “Please, is there somewhere I can breathe? I can’t breathe.”
He took her face in his hand and turned it this way and that, examining her mask. “That’s an old model. A good model, sure. But if your filters are clogging up, it don’t matter how good it is. All right. Let’s go downstairs. We’ve got a sealed pod here in the bank, and a connector to the underground roads.”
The man led her downstairs, not holding her hand or dragging her, but waiting when she lagged behind.
At the entrance to the main hallway, where there were no windows to let in any light, an oil lantern had been left beside the door. The man took it, set it alight, and held it up to brighten the way to the basement.
While Briar watched his big, bobbing back stomp through the halls and down the stairs, she told him, “Thank you. I should’ve said so sooner, but thank you, for helping me out down there.”
“Just doing my job,” he said.
“So you’re the Seattle welcome wagon?”
He shook his head. “No, but I keep my eyes open for noisy newcomers like yourself. Most of the kids, they slip in easy and keep their mouths shut. But when I hear gunshots and things breaking, I’ve got to come take a look.” The lantern’s flame wavered. He shook the light to swirl the oil. “Sometimes it’s somebody we don’t want here and don’t need here. Sometimes it’s a little woman with a big gun. It’s something new every day.”
At the first floor there was a door with all its loose bits sealed by pitch—and treated leather flaps around every crack.
“Here we go. When I open the door, you move quick and get inside.” He handed her the lantern. “I’ll be right behind you. We just try to keep the door shut, if you get my meaning.”
“Got it,” she said, and took the lantern.
From a pants pocket he withdrew a ring with a dozen black iron keys. He picked the one he wanted and pushed it through a rubber seal where Briar wouldn’t have thought to put a lock; but he turned the key and a mechanism clicked, and the door loosened when he bent his elbow.
“Count of three. One, two… three.” He tugged the latch and the door sucked outward with a pop.
Briar sidestepped her way into more darkness, and as promised, the man in the armor darted in behind her, then swiped the door back into its seal and locked it behind them.
“A little farther,” he said.
He took the lantern again and led the way, through some leather and rubber flaps hanging down in strips, and down another short corridor. The corridor ended in a strange-looking door that looked more like a cloth screen than an ordinary barricade. It was fitted with the same treated flaps around its edges to create the seal that the other underground doors all shared; but this one was porous.
Briar pushed her ear to the door and she could feel air moving through it.
“Look out. And same rules as before—be quick. One, two… three.”
He didn’t need to unlock anything this time. The door slid sideways on a track, retreating into the wall with a squeak of its seals.
She jumped around it and into the next chamber, where candles were slowly melting down to stumps upon a table. Around the table six unoccupied chairs were pushed up close, and behind them there were more crates, more candles, and another corridor with the rustling leather curtains she’d come to expect.
The man wrestled with the door and finally snapped it into position.
He crossed to the far side of the room, where he began to remove his loosened armor. “Don’t take off the mask quite yet. Give it a minute,” he said, “but make yourself at home.” The plated arm sheaths clattered as he folded them and set them down on the table. His tubular noise gun—Daisy—also sounded heavy when he plunked it down beside the protective garment.
“You thirsty?” he asked.
She said, “Yes,” in a dry whisper.
“We’ve got water down here. It isn’t very good water, but it’s wet. Got plenty of beer, too. You like beer?”
“Go ahead and take off the mask now, if you want. Maybe it’s just superstitious of me, but I don’t like to whip mine off until I’ve had the filter door closed for a minute.” He reached inside one of the crates labeled STONEWARE and pulled out a mug. In the corner was a fat brown barrel. He popped the lid off and dipped out a mug full of water.
He put it down in front of Briar.
She gave the water a greedy look, but the man hadn’t removed his mask yet, and she didn’t want to go first.
He caught on and reached for the straps that held the elaborate contraption around his head. It slid down to his chest with a sliding scrape of leather being stretched and loosened, revealing a plain, wide face that was neither kind nor unkind. It was an intelligent face, with wild brown eyebrows and a flat nose, plus a pair of full lips that were smashed close against his teeth.
“There you go,” he said of his own reveal. “No prettier, but a damn sight lighter.”
Without the mechanical mask’s assistance, his voice was still low, but perfectly human.
“Jeremiah Swakhammer, at your service, ma’am. Welcome to the underground.”