Rudy shuffled in a loping, lopsided walk that was faster than it looked. Through the crushing, smelly pressure of the mask Zeke wheezed and puffed to keep up; he struggled to suck in air through filters that had grown somewhat clogged since he’d first entered the city, and he fought with his own skin as it was pulled, stretched, and rubbed raw by the unyielding seal around his face.
“Wait,” he breathed.
“No,” Rudy replied. “No time to wait.”
He shambled on. Behind them, Zeke was certain he heard a new, rising commotion that came from anger, or grief. He heard the cacophony of consonants and unfamiliar vowels and the shouting, howling, screaming agreement of other voices from other men.
Zeke knew they’d been discovered—or, as he told himself, that Rudy’s violence had been discovered. But Zeke hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? The rules were different here, weren’t they? And all’s fair in war and self-defense, wasn’t it?
But in the back of his mind a small foreign man with glasses was bleeding and confused, and then dead for no reason at all except that he’d once been alive.
The tunnels seemed more winding and the darkness seemed more oppressive as he tagged along behind his guide, whom he viewed with increasing suspicion. He even found himself wishing the princess would come back, whomever she was. Maybe he could get a question or two in edgewise. Maybe she wouldn’t throw knives at him. Maybe she wasn’t dead.
He hoped she wasn’t dead.
But he could still hear, when he thought about it, the rumbling thunder of the ceiling and walls folding in upon themselves and filling all the air space between them, and he wondered if she’d been able to escape. He consoled himself by remembering that she was old, and no one gets to be that old without being smart and strong. It gave him an odd pang, one that he couldn’t place as he watched the hobbling escape of the man in front of him.
Rudy turned around and said, “You coming, or not?”
“Then stick with me. I can’t carry your ass, and I’m bleeding again. I can’t do everything for the both of us.”
“Where are we going?” Zeke asked, and he hated the sound of the begging that he heard from inside his mask.
“Back, same as before. Down, and then up.”
“We’re still going up the hill? You’re still taking me to Denny Hill?”
Rudy said, “I told you I was, and I will. But there ain’t no direct way between two spots in this city, and I’m real sorry if I’m not making the trip as spotless as you’d like. Forgive me, for Chrissake. I didn’t plan to get stuck with a knife or nothing. Plans change, junior. Detours happen. This is one of them.”
“Yeah, this is. Right here,” Rudy said, stopping beneath a skylight and pointing at a stack of boxes topped precariously with a ladder. Where the ladder terminated against the ceiling, a round door was locked into place. “We’re going up. And it might be bad, I’m warning you now.”
“All right,” Zeke said, even though it wasn’t all right, not even a little bit. He was having trouble breathing—more trouble with every passing footstep, because he could not catch his breath and there was nowhere to rest.
“Remember what I told you about the rotters?”
“I remember.” Zeke nodded, even though Rudy was facing away from him and didn’t see it.
“No matter how terrible you’ve got them pictured,” Rudy said, “seeing them is twice as bad. Now you listen.” He turned around and wagged his finger in Zeke’s face. “These things move fast—faster than you’d think, to look at them. They can run, and they bite. And anything they bite has to get cut off, or else you die. Do you understand?”
Zeke confessed, “Not really.”
“Well, you’ve got about a minute and a half to wrap your head around it, because we’re going up before those vicious old slant-eyes catch up and kill us just for standing here. So here’s the rules—keep quiet, keep close, and if we’re spotted, climb like a goddamned monkey.”
“You heard me. Climb. If the rotters are motivated enough they can scale a ladder, but not easily, and not very fast. If you can reach a windowsill or a fire escape, or even just a bit of overhanging concrete… do it. Go up.”
Zeke’s stomach was swishing and filled with lava. “What if we get separated?”
“Then we get separated, and it’s every man for himself, boy. I hate to put it that way, but there you have it. If I get picked off, you don’t come back for me. If I see you get picked off, I ain’t coming back for you. Life’s hard. Death’s easy.”
“But what if we just get split up?”
Rudy said, “If we get split up, same rule: Go up. Make your presence known from whatever rooftop you reach, and if I can, I’ll get you. So really, the number one point is, don’t get far from me. I can’t protect you if you take off like a lunatic.”
“I’m not going to take off like a lunatic,” Zeke sulked.
“Good,” Rudy said.
Back down the corridor the sounds were rising again, and maybe coming closer. If Zeke listened hard he could track an individual voice or two, lifted in rage and sounding ready to retaliate. Zeke felt absolutely sick, both for watching a man die and for knowing he’d had some part in it, even if he’d only stood by and not known what to do. The more he thought about it, the worse he felt; and the more he thought about a city above that was packed with gangs of the lurching undead, the worse he felt about that, too.
But he was in it now, and up to his eyeballs. There was no going back, at least not yet. Frankly, he had no idea where he was anymore—and he couldn’t have left the city on his own accord if he wanted to.
So when the sealed doorway unfastened with a giant gasp, he followed Rudy up through it and into a street that was every bit as bleak and unforgiving as the tunnel below it.
Ezekiel did just like Rudy had told him.
He stayed close, and he stayed quiet. It was easy to do, almost; the silence above was so alarmingly complete that it was easier to keep it than to break it. Once in a while a pair of wings would catch the sky overhead and flap hard, and fast, up above the Blight that filled the walls. Zeke wondered how they did it—how they survived, breathing the poisoned air as if it were the cleanest spring day.
But he didn’t get a chance to ask.
Instead, he almost cuddled up against the injured man who led him onward, and he copied everything he did. When Rudy pressed his back up against a wall and scooted himself along it, Zeke did likewise. When Rudy held his breath and listened, Zeke did the same, choking himself inside the mask and hanging onto every bit of oxygen. He used it up and waited for more until he saw stars flickering across his visor, and then he breathed because he had to.
He couldn’t see more than a few yards in any given direction. The Blight had a density to it, and a color that was somewhere between shit and sunflowers. It was not quite fog, but it was some toxic kin, and it blocked their view as surely as any low-lying cloud.
Around the edges of Zeke’s clothes—at his wrists where his gloves didn’t meet the sleeves, and around his neck where his coat didn’t close all the way—he began to itch. The urge to rub it was tough to fight, but when Rudy caught him dragging his wool-clad knuckles back and forth, he shook his head and whispered, “Don’t. It’ll make it worse.”
The buildings were shapeless stacks in different squared-off heights, and their windows and doors were either broken altogether or boarded and reinforced. Zeke assumed that the boarded-up first floors indicated safe places, more or less, and that if he needed to, he could perhaps get to relative safety if he could find a way inside one. But that was easier to speculate than accomplish. He saw fire escapes here and there—great ironwork tangles of stairs and rails that looked as fragile as doll furniture; and he thought he could climb them if he had to, but then what? Could he break a window and let himself down that way?
Rudy had said there were lights, stashed along the way.
And here was Zeke, already plotting ways to get away from him.
It surprised him to realize that this was what he was doing. He knew no one else in the city at all, and he’d only seen two other people—one of whom Rudy had murdered outright. The other one had tried to murder Rudy. So if Zeke was trying to assign the benefit of a doubt, he supposed that a fifty-fifty shot of getting murdered was a good-enough excuse to get proactive. But that didn’t make it feel any better.
As he towed along in Rudy’s wake, he wondered again about the Chinese man. The contents of his stomach threatened an escape attempt.
No. He wouldn’t have it. Not in the mask. Not when he couldn’t take it off, not without dying. Forget it.
He willed his belly to settle down, and it did.
Rudy ambled forward, his back hunched and his shoulder cringing. He led the way with his cane, which—as Zeke now knew—held only two shots. And what were two shots against a slavering pack of rotters?
He’d no sooner thought of them than he heard, somewhere close, a softly grunted moan.
Rudy froze. Zeke froze behind him.
Rudy’s head swung left to right, up and down, seeking some obvious escape or path.
Rotters? Zeke mouthed, but inside his mask Rudy couldn’t see the lips forming the question, so he didn’t answer.
Another moan joined the first, like a question added to a conversation. It came with a different timbre and a more jagged edge, as if the mouth that made it was no longer complete. After the groans came the footsteps, tentative and slow and so perilously nearby that the fear felt like a boot on Zeke’s chest.
Rudy spun around and grabbed Zeke’s mask, pulling it close to his own and whispering as softly as he could manage. “This road.” He waved a hand at the nearest intersection and pointed down to the right. “Several blocks. Big tower—white building. Climb up to the second floor. Break what you have to.”
Rudy closed his eyes for a full second and then opened them again. He added, “Run for it.”
Zeke didn’t know if he could run for anything. His chest was as tight as if it were wrapped in ropes, and his throat felt like it was wearing a noose tied from a scarf. He looked down the road Rudy indicated and saw almost nothing but a slow, sloping grade that he was nearly certain must dip farther away from the hill he wanted.
Through his head a parade of memorized maps flipped a page at a time, reassuring him that this was the wrong way—but could he run uphill? Where would he go to escape, if not to this tower that Rudy had told him about?
Panic was filling his mask and blinding him, but it didn’t matter. The groans, moans, and shuffling steps were coming closer, and he was confident that soon, very soon, they’d be upon him.
Rudy took off first. Bum hip or no, he could run, but he couldn’t run quietly.
At the slapping of his feet the moans took on a higher, keening pitch, and somewhere in the depths of the fog a press of bodies began to organize. They began to assemble. They began to hunt.
Zeke panted, trying to draw in enough breath to catch himself up or calm himself down. He pointed himself down the hill and took a last look over his shoulder. Seeing nothing but the swirling, grasping fog, he took heart. And he ran.
The streets under his feet were uneven and split, from the earthquake or simply from time and terrible wear. He tripped and recovered, stumbled and caught himself on his hands—which bruised and bumped, but worked like reflexive spiders and threw him back up to his feet. Then he ran some more.
Behind him in the fog he could hear them coming in a rushing tide.
He did not look. He focused hard on the shrugging, pushing figure of Rudy—who was moving ahead, gaining speed, though Zeke didn’t know how. Perhaps the older man was more accustomed to wearing the suffocating masks, or perhaps he was not as crippled as he seemed. Regardless, he was closing in on the white building that rose up suddenly out of the murky air.
Fog crashed against it like waves, as if it were a boulder in the ocean and the tide had come in to stay.
As soon as Zeke could see it, he was nearly on top of it—and this was a problem. He had no idea how to reach the second floor. He didn’t see a fire escape or a set of stairs. He only saw the front entrance—huge tarnished bronze doors that had been barricaded with split logs and chains.
His forward momentum was uncontrollable and unstoppable until he slapped his hands against the structure and forced himself to a halt. The force of his collision ached and stung against his already battered hands, but he used them to feel his way around the boarded windows and their intricate frames, where the stonework wasn’t covered with boards or sheets of metal.
Looking around, he saw no sign of his guide. “Rudy!” he squeaked, too frightened to yell and too frightened to keep silent.
“Here!” Rudy called from someplace out of sight.
“Here,” he said again, much louder because he was right beside Zeke. “Around the side, come on. Hurry up, they’re coming.”
“I hear them. They’re coming from—”
“Everywhere,” Rudy said. “That’s right. Feel that?” He took Zeke’s hand and pushed it up to a ledge somewhere around chest-height.
“Up, boy.” He threw his cane over the side and hauled himself up after it, then began to crawl even higher with the aid of an improvised ladder. Zeke could see it, once he knew where to look: It was made of boards and bars bolted directly into the stone.
But it wasn’t so easy for him to get up to that point. He was shorter than Rudy and not as strong; and he was gagging from lack of air and the stink of rubber mixed with leather in every breath he drew.
Rudy reached back and grabbed Zeke’s arm, yanking him bodily up onto the ledge and then pivoting the boy to aim him at the ladder built into the wall. “How fast can you climb?” he asked.
Zeke’s only answer was to scale the wall like a lizard. Once he knew where the handholds were, he trusted them to hold because there was no time to test them one by one. He wedged his feet against the boards and wormed his hands around the bars and climbed. Rudy came up behind him, moving slower. Though he acted comfortable enough in a straight stretch, rising was hard on his hip, and he groused and grunted with every step.
“Wait,” he wheezed, but Zeke didn’t see the point. He saw a window with a small balcony—and it looked promising.
“Is this where we get off?”
“What?” Rudy cocked his head up and his hat tipped back, nearly falling away.
“This window. Is this—”
“Yeah, that’s it. Go on, I’m right behind you.”
A bar like the handle on an oven crossed the window and looked like a logical place to grab. Zeke seized it and yanked; it squeaked and budged, but not enough. He yanked it again and the window popped outward from its frame—almost casting Zeke off balance, and off the balcony.
“Careful, junior,” Rudy admonished. His hands reached the balcony, and he rested while Zeke navigated the window.
Below them the streets had gone darker—not with shadows, but with pressing, groaning bodies that clotted together like a thickening soup. When Zeke looked down he could not distinguish the rotters individually, but he could discern a hand here, and a head there. The dirty air blanketed them and blurred them.
“Ignore them,” Rudy said. “Get inside so we can get these damn masks off. I can’t stand this thing another minute.”
Zeke couldn’t have agreed more if he’d tried. He lifted one leg and dropped it down on the other side, into the interior of the white-walled building. The other leg followed, and he was inside.
Rudy fell in behind him, folding up and rolling to a rollicking halt. He stayed flat on his back for a moment, breathing harder than the mask would let him. “Shut the damn window, boy. You’re letting the Blight inside.”
“Oh, sure.” Zeke wrestled the window back into position. It was harder from the far side, where waxed flaps of stiffened fabric lined the edges to form a seal. But he closed it, and it sucked itself back into place. “Can I take the mask off now?”
“No, not now. Not on this floor, not unless you want to get good and sick, good and fast. Let’s go downstairs. You can take off your mask down there, and we can find our way back to the tunnels, no problem.”
“Back to the tunnels? And back up the hill?” Zeke asked, knowing that he was asking Rudy to lie and not really caring. He only wanted to remind him of the promise, even if his guide had no intention of keeping it.
“To the hill, sure. We can get there from here. But not by going up any farther. This damn tower is too far away from anything, so there aren’t any bridges or walkways connecting it to any other building. And even if there were, we’d have to keep wearing these things.”
Zeke tugged at the seals on his mask, and scratched at the raw skin he found there. “I do want to take this off.”
“Then let’s go downstairs. If I can find the damn stairs,” Rudy said, sitting up and rubbing at his own mask’s edges.
“If you can find them?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in here, that’s all.” He drew up his cane and used it to lever himself upright. He teetered back and forth. He steadied.
The boy gazed around the room, with its unboarded windows and air that was somewhat clearer than the stuff outside. Scattered around the room were ghostly shapes that turned out to be furniture covered with drapery. Zeke poked at one and felt the arm of a chair underneath, and then he inferred the shape of a couch and a table. When he looked up, he saw the skeleton of a chandelier—a piece that surely was beautiful once, but now was missing its crystals. “Where are we?” he asked.
“We’re in…” Rudy swung around and surveyed the premises. “Somebody’s room? Or it used to be, maybe. I don’t know. We’re in the Smith Tower, at any rate.”
“Why’s it called that?”
“Because it was built by a guy named Smith,” he answered dryly. “You know what a typewriter is?”
“Yeah,” Zeke responded. “Maybe.”
“All right. You ever hear of Smith Corona?”
He said, “Oh sure, yeah. The guns.”
“No, that’s Smith and Wesson. This tower was built with typewriter money. Watch where you’re stepping, kid. Parts of the floor aren’t finished yet, and there aren’t any rails on the stairs. This place wasn’t done being built when the Blight hit. It’s mostly solid, but here and there you’ve got to keep an eye out.”
“Is it tall?”
“The tower? Yeah, it’s tall. It’s the tallest building anyplace for miles, even though the last couple of floors aren’t up yet.”
Zeke said, “I want to go upstairs. I want to look out over the city from the top.” He didn’t add, “So I can figure out where I am, and how much you’ve been lying to me.”
Rudy’s eyes narrowed behind his visor. “I thought you wanted to see the hill?”
“I do want to see the hill. I want to see it from up there. Are the other floors sealed up?”
“Most of them are,” Rudy admitted. “Just this one’s not, because it’s how everybody gets inside. If you go up or down, you can pull the mask off, but if you go all the way up you’ll have to shove it back on. The airships like to dock up there, and the dock ain’t sealed-up space or anything. And it’s a whole lot of stairs, kid. Are you sure you want to hike it?”
“You think you can keep up with me?” Zeke said, trying to make it a light challenge. He wanted to test his guide, and maybe wear him out a little if he could. He’d already figured out that he might need to run, and if it came to that, he’d need to outrun more than the limping man. He’d have to get out of the way of that cane.
“I can keep up with you,” Rudy said. “Go out there, to the main hallway. There should be a lantern around the corner.” He tossed him a box of matches and said, “Light it up.”
Zeke found the lantern and made it bright. Rudy came to stand beside him. He said, “You see that curtain over there?”
“The black one?”
“That’s the one. It’s a seal—silk covered with tar. There’s a bar down there at the bottom; it weighs it down and holds it steady. Slide it out and we can move the curtain.” He leaned on his cane and watched while Zeke followed instructions, then said, “Now hop through fast. I’m behind you,” and he was.
Zeke reset the bar and they were smothered in darkness except for the lantern, which did its best to hold a cheery glow. “Let’s go down to the end, and then we’ll pop these things off.”
“Can we breathe in here?”
“Probably, but I ain’t chancing it. I like to put a pair of seals between me and the Blight if I can help it.” Rudy took the lantern and followed the carpeted hallway to its terminus, then squeezed himself between another set of flaps. After a few seconds, only his left hand with the cane remained out where Zeke could see it. Rudy extended his finger and crooked it, meaning the boy should slip through, too.
On the other side of the seal there was light, though, it was gray and sickly.
Rudy’s mask was already off by the time Zeke pushed himself through the slot. Seeing the other man breathe freely made Zeke desperate to do likewise. He ripped his mask off and sucked in the foulest-tasting air he’d ever inhaled, but it was beautiful because it came without a fight.
Happily he gasped himself back to life. “I can breathe! It stinks in here like shit, but I can breathe!”
“Even the freshest stuff smells like sulfur and smoke up here,” Rudy agreed. “Down below it’s not so bad, but the air up here gets stale because there’s nowhere for it to go. At least underground we force it to move.”
Zeke examined his mask and saw that his filters were changing colors. “I need new filters,” he observed. “I thought these were supposed to work fine for ten hours?”
“Son, how long you think you’ve been down here? That long, at least, I’ll tell you that much for sure. But that’s nothing to panic about. Filters are a penny a pound in the underground since that big old negro robbed a Confederate supply train last spring. And if you find yourself running low, there are sealed tunnels all over the place in this part of town. Remember the rule, though: Put two seals between you and the Blight if you can.”
“I’ll remember,” Zeke said, since the advice seemed sensible.
Off in some unseen corner of the enormous, unfinished tower, both travelers heard a pinging crash. It echoed from loud to soft, and dissipated in the distance. Zeke demanded, “What was that?”
“Damned if I know,” Rudy said.
“It sounded like it was coming from inside.”
Rudy said, “Yeah, it did.” He tightened his grip on his cane and lifted it up off the floor so it’d be ready to fire, should the moment require it.
A second scuttling sound followed the first, and it was more unmistakable this time. It was the sound of something falling down the stairs behind them.
“I don’t like this,” Rudy grumbled. “We got to get back down.”
“We can’t!” Zeke whispered fiercely. “That noise came from downstairs! We’d be better off going up!”
“You’re an idiot. We head up, and we get trapped wherever the stairs run out.”
The argument ended there, because a different sound from a different direction blew louder and stranger up above. It was the sound of machinery and force; it was the swish and rattling sway of something huge coming close—all too quickly.
Zeke couldn’t finish the question. From outside and above, an enormous airship with a billowing, flapping basket and hard metal tanks crashed against the side of the tower and bounced into another structure, then returned for a second broken landing. Windows shattered and the whole world heaved, just like it had when the earth quaked hours before.
Rudy jammed his mask back on over his face and Zeke did likewise, even though the act made him want to cry. Rudy ran to the stairs even as the building shuddered beneath their feet, and he commanded, “Down!”
And so he began to half run, half stumble downward into the darkness.
Zeke didn’t have the lantern anymore, and he didn’t know what had become of it. The hustling retreat of Rudy beating a rambling flight was as noisy as the beating air and the banging ship that assaulted the walls. But when Zeke reached the stairs and the rocking blackness sought to undermine him, he fought it. And he began to climb up.
And then there was more darkness than what he started with, and it was collapsing toward him, rushing like water, or earth, or the sky itself.