Except for the fact that there were no windows, the establishment looked every bit like a thousand others that operated aboveground. A big bar made of wood and brass hulked against the far wall, and behind it a cracked mirror had been installed. It brightened and reflected the warm-looking room, doubling the clustered candles alight on every square, squat table—and contributing a fractured luster to the scene.
At the piano a gray-haired man in a long green coat sat on a stool and banged away at the keys, each one of them yellowed like old teeth. Beside him, a large-boned woman with only one arm tapped her foot in time to the tune he was struggling to produce; and at the bar, a thin man served up a sickly yellow substance that must be the disgusting beer.
Three men sat at the bar, and six or seven more were scattered throughout the tavern, seated here and there—except for a fellow who was sitting unconscious on the floor beside the piano. Something about the mug in his hand and the drool on his chin suggested he’d passed out there, not fallen victim to some more exciting event.
At the sight of Swakhammer, several patrons tipped a mug in a passive greeting; but upon seeing Briar, the place fell silent except for the determined, simple tune.
Even the music stopped when the one-armed woman noted the newcomers.
“Jeremiah,” she said in a cigarette-rough voice. “Who’ve you got there?”
From the look of anticipation on the faces of Maynard’s patrons, Briar was able to guess many things. She was trying to frame a gentle way of disappointing them when Swakhammer did it for her.
“Lucy,” he said to the barwoman—and by telling her, he told the room, “she’s not that kind of visitor.”
“Are you sure?” asked one of the men at the bar. “She’s prettier than the usual crew.”
“ ‘Fraid so.” He turned to Briar and said, with a note of apology in his voice, “Once in a while, working girls find their way down here. They can make a fortune in a week, but you know how it is. They’ve got to be pretty desperate to give the walls a try.”
Briar said, “Oh.”
Swakhammer said, “All right then, let me make an introduction or two. That’s Lucy O’Gunning over there at the bar. She’s in charge of the joint. Going around the room, that’s Varney on the stool; Hank on the floor by the piano; Frank, Ed, and Willard at the bar; Allen and David at the far table; Squiddy and Joe over there playing cards; and down front there’s Mackie and Tim. I think that’s everybody.”
Then he said, “Everybody, this is Miss Briar Wilkes.”
A sudden hum of low-pitched chatter filled the room, but Swakhammer kept talking. “She got a ride from your friend and mine, Captain Cly, and thought she’d visit our fair and fine vacation destination here inside the walls—and I couldn’t think of a better place to begin than here at the spot named for her daddy. She’s got a few questions she’d like to ask, and I hope you’ll all be good enough to treat her nice.”
No one rose or offered any objections or accusations, so Briar dove headlong into the point of her visit. “I’m looking for my son,” she blurted. “Has anybody seen him? His name is Ezekiel, and he’ll be going by Zeke. Zeke Wilkes. He’s only fifteen, and he’s a smart kid aside from the stump-stupid idea to come in here. I was hoping maybe someone here had seen him. He’s…”
No one interrupted her with helpful information. She kept talking, and with every word she became more certain of what the outcome would be, but that only made her ramble longer.
“He’s about as tall as me, and thin as a rail. He’s got a few of his grandfather’s things; I guess he meant to barter them, or use them as proof of who he is. He would’ve gotten here yesterday sometime. I’m not sure exactly when he left, but he came up through the water runoff system before it collapsed in last night’s quake. Have any of you…” She met a few eyes, but none of them held a yes. She had to ask anyway, so she did. “Have any of you seen him?”
No one spoke, or blinked.
“I thought—that is, Mr. Swakhammer said—that maybe someone would’ve brought him here, since Zeke is who he is. I thought…”
They didn’t need to answer. She knew the answer, but she wished someone would reply, anyway. She hated being the only one talking, but she was going to keep going until someone stopped her.
Lucy finally did. She said, “Miss Wilkes, I’m real sorry. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him. But that don’t mean he’s come to harm. There’s more than one sealed spot here in the walls where he might’ve holed up and taken rest.”
Briar must’ve looked closer to tears than she hoped, because the older woman came forward, adjusting her shawl. “Honey, you’ve had a hard day, I can already tell it. Let me get you a drink and sit you down, and you can tell us the whole thing.”
She nodded and choked on the lump that was swelling in her throat.
“I shouldn’t,” she began to argue. “I need to keep looking for him.”
“I know you do. But give us a minute or two to freshen you up and get you some clean filters, and you can tell us all about it. And maybe we can help you out. Let’s see. Has Jeremiah there offered you any beer?”
“Yes, but no; no thank you. And I already have some extra filters; I just haven’t had a chance to use them.”
Lucy led Briar up to the nearest empty barstool and positioned her there.
Frank, Ed, and Willard all hopped seats until they were hovering right at Briar’s elbows; and behind her, she could hear the scraping of chairs being pushed and abandoned. The remaining occupants of the bar all crowded in close, too.
Lucy used her only arm to shoo them away, or at least back; and then she went behind the counter and poured some beer despite the woman’s refusal. “Take it,” she told her, setting a mug down in front of her. “It smells like horse piss with a sprig of mint, but any port in a storm, wouldn’t you say? Well, we don’t have any port, so drink this down, dear. It’ll warm you up and wake you up.”
Varney, the man from the piano, leaned forward and said, “Mostly she tells us it’ll put hair on our chests.”
“Get back to your keys, you old coot. You’re not helping.” Lucy reached for a bar towel and wiped up a splash of wayward beer.
Briar wondered about the glove Lucy wore on her sole remaining hand. It was brown leather and it reached up to her elbow, where it was held in place by a series of tiny buckles and straps. There was stiffness in Lucy’s fingers, and a faint clicking sound as they squeezed the towel and flapped it open.
“Go on,” Lucy insisted. “Give it a try. Won’t kill you, I promise—though it might give you a case of the sneezes for a minute. It does that to lots of people, so don’t feel funny if it happens.”
Not encouraged, but not willing to be rude to the moon-faced woman with the fluffy, graying curls, she sniffed at the beer and steeled herself for a sip. It became apparent at a whiff that a mere sip would gag her, so she seized the handle and jerked the mug to her mouth, swallowing as much as she could in one forced gulp. She tried not to think about what the beverage might do to her stomach.
The woman behind the bar smiled approvingly and patted Briar’s shoulder. “See? There you go. Awful as can be, but it’ll make you feel better. Now, baby,” she urged, “tell ol’ Lucy how she can help.”
Again, and without meaning to, through eyes that watered from the burn of the beer, Briar was looking at Lucy’s hand. Where her other arm ought to have hung, her dress sleeve had been stitched shut and pinned to her side.
Lucy caught her looking and said, “I don’t mind if you stare—everybody does. I’ll tell you all about it in a bit, if you want to hear it, but right now I want to hear about what you’re doing here.”
Briar was almost too miserable to speak, and the addition of the beer had constricted her throat until she could scarcely manage a sound. “This is all my fault. And if anything horrible has happened to him, that’s all my fault too. I’ve done so many things wrong, and I don’t know how to fix any of it, and… and… are you bleeding?” She cocked her head and scrunched up her forehead as a drip of greasy red-brown fluid splattered onto the bar.
“Bleeding? Oh no, sweetheart. That’s just oil.” She flexed her fingers, and the knuckles popped with a tinny clack. “The whole thing’s mechanical. It gives me a little leak, every so often. Didn’t mean to distract you, though. Go on. All your fault, I heard—and I’m prepared to argue, but I thought I’d let you finish.”
“Clear up to here,” she said, indicating a spot an inch or two down from her elbow. “It’s bolted onto my bones. But you were saying.”
“That’s not what you were saying.”
Briar said, “Well no, it’s not. But your arm is amazing. And…” She sighed, and took another long drink of the terrible beer. Her whole body shuddered as the brew went down to sour in her stomach. “And,” she repeated, “I’d said all I meant to say. You heard the rest of it. I want to find Zeke, and I don’t even know if he’s alive. And if he’s not—”
“Then it’s all your fault, yes. You mentioned. You’re being awfully hard on yourself. Boys disobey their parents with such great regularity that it’s barely worth a comment; and if yours is talented enough to rebel in such grand fashion, then you ought to consider it a point of pride that he’s such a sharp lad.” She leaned forward on her one elbow, laying her mechanical forearm down on the bar. “Now tell me, you don’t really think—do you—that there’s anything you could’ve done to keep him out of here?”
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
Someone behind Briar gave her back a friendly pat. It startled her, but there was nothing salacious about the gesture so she didn’t flinch away from it. Besides, this was more friendly human contact than she’d had in years, and the pleasantness of it smoothed the keen, guilty edge of her sorrow.
“Let me ask you this, then,” Lucy tried. “What if you’d given him all the answers to every question he ever asked. Would he have liked those answers?”
“No, he wouldn’t have,” she confessed.
“Would he have accepted them?”
“I doubt it.”
The barwoman sighed in sympathy and said, “And there you go, don’t you? One day, he’d have gotten a bee in his bonnet about the old homestead, and he’d have come poking about regardless. Boys are boys, they are. They’re useless and ornery as can be, and when they grow up they’re even worse.”
Briar said, “But this particular boy is mine. I love him, and I owe him. And I can’t even find him.”
“Find him? But baby, you’ve barely got looking! Swakhammer,” she turned to him and demanded, “how long have you been dragging this poor woman through the undersides?”
He swore, “I brought her here first thing, Miss Lucy. I sorted her out real quick, and—”
“You’d better have sorted her out real quick. If you’d brought Maynard’s girl anywhere else, or to anyone else,” she said with emphasis that made Briar divinely uncomfortable, “I’d have tanned your hide till it glowed in the dark. And don’t you tell me you had to figure out who she was. I knew as soon as she showed her face in here, and you did too. I remember that face. I remember this girl. It’s been… my word, it’s been… well, it’s been a long time, and a hard time, to be sure.“
The chorus behind her murmured agreement. Even Swakhammer mumbled a “Yes, ma’am.”
“Now finish your beer, and we’ll talk turkey.”
It was even harder to suck down the fearsome brew when she was trying so hard not to cry, and the subsequent gulps didn’t slide down any easier than the first one.
“You’re being so very kind,” she said. Between the beer and the throttling, fist-sized lump in her throat, it came out garbled. She added, “I’m sorry, please forgive me. I’m not usually so… I’m usually more… I’m not used to this. It’s like you said, it’s been a hard day.”
Much to Briar’s surprise, the mug was empty. It was baffling stuff, and she almost certainly shouldn’t have replied, “More, all right. But only a bit. I need to keep myself steady.”
“This’ll keep you steady—or anyway, it won’t make you too sloppy, too fast. What you need right now is a moment to sit and talk and think. Let’s come on together now, boys.” She waved for the bar’s occupants to come in closer and pull up seats. “Right now I know you think you’ve got to run out and get looking, and I don’t blame you. But listen to me, baby, there’s time. No, don’t look at me like that. One way or another, there’s time. Let me ask you this, did he come with a mask?”
She took another hard swallow and found that the beer wasn’t so bad on its second full dose. It still made her mouth taste like the bottom of a restaurant sink, but with practice, it became easier to drink. “He did, yes. He made preparations.”
“All right, that would buy him half a day. And it’s been more than half a day, so that means he’s found a spot to hole up and hunker down.”
“Or he’s dead already.”
“Or he’s dead already, fine.” Lucy frowned. “Yes, that’s a possibility. Either way, there’s nothing you can do for him right at this moment except pull yourself together and make a plan.”
“But what if he’s trapped somewhere, stuck and needing a rescue? What if he got pinned down by the rotters, and his air’s running out, and he’s—”
“Now see, don’t go getting yourself all worked up like that. It’s no help to him, or to you. If you want to think that way, then sure, we can think that way. What if heis trapped up someplace and needing a hand? How are you going to find that place? What if you go running off to the wrong place, and leave him stranded?”
Briar grimaced down into the mug and wished that the woman weren’t making so much sense. “Fine. Then what do I do to get started?”
If Lucy’d had two hands, she would’ve clapped them together. As it was, she thwacked her clockwork fist down on the counter and declared, “Excellent question! We start with you, of course. He got inside through the water runoff tunnels, you said. Where was he going?”
She told them about the house, and about how Zeke wished to prove his father’s innocence by finding proof of the Russian ambassador’s interference, and how she did not know if the boy had any idea where the house was located.
Even though Swakhammer had heard most of it already, he stood quietly in the background and paid attention to the story again, as if he might learn something new on the second hearing. He loomed behind the bar, and in front of the fractured mirror. He was all the more ferocious when she could see him from all sides.
When Briar had finished catching them up on everything she could think of, a jittery silence fell in Maynard’s.
Varney broke it by saying, “The house you lived in with Blue, that was up the hill there, wasn’t it? Up off Denny Street.”
“That’s right. If it’s still standing.”
“Which one?” someone asked. Briar thought it might’ve been Frank.
“The lavender one with cream-colored trim,” she said.
The one Swakhammer had called Squiddy asked, “Where was his laboratory? Downstairs?”
“In the basement, yes. And it was huge,” she recalled. “I swear, it was as big as the whole house aboveground, almost. But…”
“But what?” Lucy asked.
“But it was so badly damaged.” Despite the warming numbness of the alcohol, her anxiety spiked once more. “It’s not safe down there. Parts of the walls fell down, and there was so much glass everywhere. It looked like an explosion in a goblet factory,” she said more quietly.
The memory distracted her with its immediacy. The machine. The destruction downstairs when she’d run there, terrified and searching frantically for her husband. The smell of wet earth and mold; the raging hiss of steam pouring from cracks in the Boneshaker’s body; the stink of burning oil and the wire-sharp taste of metal gears grinding themselves into smoke.
“The tunnel,” she said out loud.
“I beg your pardon?” Swakhammer said.
She repeated, “The tunnel. Er… Varney, is that right? Varney, how did you know which house was ours?”
He fired a wad of tobacco into the spittoon at the end of the counter, and answered, “Used to live up that way myself. Lived with my son, a few streets over. Used to joke about how it ought to be painted blue instead of that purple color.”
“Did anyone else here know about the old house? Where we lived, it wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t the most common knowledge in the world, either.” No one replied, so she concluded, “Right. Basically, nobody knows. But what about the money blocks?”
Lucy raised an eyebrow. “The money blocks?”
“The money blocks, the bank blocks, yes. Everybody knows where those are, right?”
Swakhammer said, “Oh yeah. You can’t miss ’em. It’s that section over on Third where there’s no block at all anymore, just a big hole in the ground. Why? What are you thinking, Miss Wilkes?”
“I’m thinking that the hole got there because… oh, we all know why. It was the Boneshaker engine; even Levi admitted that much. But after he ran the thing down there, and after the bottom dropped out of the bank blocks, he drove it back home. As far as I know, the Boneshaker is still sitting underneath the house, parked in what’s left of that laboratory.“
She pushed the mostly empty mug of beer aside and tapped her fingertips on the counter.
“Let’s say Zeke can’t find the house because no one knows where it is. But he does know about what happened with the Boneshaker. He’d have no trouble finding the bank blocks because, like you said, everybody knows where those are—and if he could get down in the hole with a light… he might think he’s got an easy way to find the house.”
Lucy lifted the other eyebrow, then dropped them both into a worried look.
“But dearest, those tunnels haven’t held up—not all this time. They’re just dirt, and dug out with a machine. These days, they’re more collapsed than whole. Hell, if you go wandering up the hill, here and there you can see the spots where the tunnels have dropped into sinkholes—eating up trees and walls, and parts of buildings, sometimes. And then there was the quake last night. No, he couldn’t have gone too far, not through those tunnels.”
“I don’t disagree,” Briar was quick to say. “But I don’t know if any of that would occur to Zeke. I bet you he’ll try it. He’ll try it, and he’ll feel like a genius for it. Hmm.”
“Hmm?” Varney echoed.
“He has maps, I think,” she told him.
Then she said to Lucy, and therefore to the room, “I found papers in his bedroom, and I think he’s got a map or two. I don’t know how useful they’ll be, and I don’t know if they marked out the banks, or the money district, or anything like that. Could you tell me, is there anyone over there—in that part of the city—who Zeke might’ve asked for help? You said Maynard’s isn’t the only sealed place inside the walls. Didn’t you? You’ve carved out these places down here.”
She looked around at the underground bar and added, “I mean, look at Maynard’s. You’ve done something incredible here. This is as good as anything I’ve seen in the Outskirts. When I found out people lived here, I didn’t understand why. But now I do. You’ve turned a place of peril into a place where people can live in peace—”
And at that moment, a low-pitched buzz sounded a dull alarm, and everyone in the bar transformed in perfect sync.
Swakhammer pulled a pair of gigantic pistols out of his holsters and spun the cylinders to make sure they were loaded. Lucy reached under the bar and retrieved a modified crossbow. She flipped a latch and the contraption opened; she placed it upside down on the counter and slammed her mechanical arm upon it, and the weapon affixed itself to her wrist with a hard click. Even white-haired Varney with his fragile-looking limbs was bracing himself for trouble. He lifted up the piano’s lid and retrieved a pair of shotguns, which he held ready—one under each armpit.
“Is that thing loaded?” Lucy asked, jerking an eyebrow at the Spencer.
It was still on Briar’s back, but she retrieved it and held it ready. “Yes,” she said, though she couldn’t remember to what extent it still held ammunition. How many shots had she fired on the windowsill? Had she reloaded it afterward? Surely it had a few rounds left.
Briar asked Swakhammer, since he was standing closest, “What’s going on? What does that noise mean?”
“It means trouble. Not sure what sort. Maybe bad, maybe nothing.”
Squiddy held up a brass canister that looked like a shoulder-mounted cannon and said, “But it’s best to be ready for bad.”
Lucy added, “It’s hooked up to a trip wire down the west entrance—the main door, that is. The way you came inside. Jeremiah guided you past the alarm; you probably didn’t see it.”
And then the buzz was joined by a whistling moan that everyone recognized all too well, coming from the chamber beyond the sealed space of the bar.
“Where’s your mask, baby?” Lucy asked. She didn’t take her eyes off the front door.
“In my bag. Why?”
“In case we get flushed out, and there’s nowhere to go but up.” She might have been ready to say more, but a heavy collision knocked against the door and nearly broke it down. More moaning came from the other side, rising in anticipation and excitement, and gaining volume. Briar put on her mask.
Lucy said to Swakhammer, “How’s the east tunnel?”
He was already there, examining the passageway via slats in an oblong door behind the piano. “Uncertain,” he replied.
Allen asked, “What about the upstairs block? Is that way safe?”
Above them there came a splintering crash, then a loud stumble of decomposing feet rumbled on the floors of whatever lay upstairs. No one asked again if it might be safe.
Varney pointed his guns at the straining door and said, “We have to go down.”
“Wait,” Lucy told him.
Swakhammer returned from the piano corner door to the west tunnel entrance, dragging a railroad tie behind him with one hand and shoving his mask over his head with the other. Squiddy ran to his side and picked up the dangled end of the squared-off log, and between the men they lifted it and shoved it against the door, into a set of slots that held it flush there. Almost immediately, a clattering crack echoed through the bar, accompanied by the splintering stretch of wood that might not hold. The new brace was straining; the brass and steel fittings that lifted it up were leaning away from their mounts.
“What can I do to help?” Briar asked.
Lucy said, “You’ve got a gun.”
“And she can shoot it,” Swakhammer vouched as he dashed toward the back of the room, where he picked up a metal bar and used it to pry up a section of the floor in a big square sheet. Varney took over and propped it with his hip. Swakhammer returned to stand back-to-back with Lucy, his guns aiming at the west tunnel door.
“There you go,” Lucy told her. “You can take a defensive position and shoot for the head of anything that makes it through that door. Nothing else will slow them down.”
“East tunnel’s no longer uncertain,” Frank declared as he whipped the door shut and dropped a metal bar down to latch it. It shut with a crash that sounded in time with another hard push from the other side of the main entrance.
“The subbasement’s intact!” Swakhammer declared. “Do we hold the fort or bail? It’s your call, Ms. Lucy.”
“It’s always my goddamned call,” she swore.
“It’s your goddamned bar.”
She hesitated, and the front door shattered in slow motion, giving way from the middle beam outwards. “Frank, you said—”
“East way’s blocked, ma’am.”
“And that way.” She cringed as one full door slab cracked and a festering eyeball appeared behind it. “It’s hopeless, ain’t it?”
Briar lifted the rifle up to her shoulder, squinted, and fired. The eyeball vanished, but in a moment, another one took its place.
Lucy said, “Nice shot. But God knows how many more are behind him. We’ve got to bail. Bloody goddamn hell. I hate cleaning up after those things. All right. Yes. Everybody out. Varney, you hold the door. Swakhammer, up front. Everybody else, down the hatch behind the bar. You too, Miss Wilkes.”
“No. I’m staying with you.”
“Nobody’s staying. We’re all going to run for it.” Without looking over her shoulder, Lucy said, “The rest of you bastards had better have one foot in the tunnel and the other on a banana peel. When I turn around, I don’t want to see a soul except for Varney holding up the lid.”
Briar chanced a look and saw the scuffle that matched the scrambling sounds behind her. Frank, Ed, Allen, and Willard were gone, and Varney was half kicking, half shoving the still-groggy Hank down the hole.
“All clear,” Varney announced as Hank fell to the bottom with a yelp.
“Good,” Lucy said. But then a whole chunk of wood came smashing out of the door frame and into the bar, and three waving, stinking, grasping hands came reaching through it, prying and yanking at the other boards that stood between them and the emptying room. “After you, Miss Wilkes.”
Swakhammer swore loudly and turned his attention to the door behind the piano. “Behind you!” he warned.
Briar said, “Mr. Swakhammer, I’ve got plenty in front of me!” and she fired again.
Swakhammer ran to the east tunnel door and leaned against it, pressing his back firmly and digging his feet into the wood-grained floor. The east entrance was failing every bit as fast as its western counterpart.
“We can’t stay like this!” he said, and ripped himself away as the first writhing, twisting fingers tried to drill themselves past his armor. He whirled around and cocked the pistols, and fired them at the door with less aiming than Briar had summoned. The blasts hit as much wood as rotter, loosening the barrier even more. A foot broke through the bottom beam and kicked back and forth as if feeling around for something.
“Go!” Briar shouted, preparing the rifle again and firing at anything that wiggled behind the broken places in the doors.
“You first!” Lucy ordered.
“All right!” she agreed. Lucy threw herself around the bar’s edge and dove for the hole in the floor.
When Briar heard a definitive dropping of the one-armed woman down to some lower corner below, she turned just in time to see Swakhammer’s masked face only feet away from hers, and coming in quick.
He seized her arm and grabbed it so fast, and so hard, that she almost shot him by accident; but she lifted the rifle with her unencumbered hand and towed it behind her like a kite as Swakhammer dragged her down to the hole.
The doors broke one after another; the western main entrance and the east tunnel collapsed inward, and a flood of reeking, broken bodies came cascading into the interior.
Briar saw them in snatched glimpses. She didn’t slow and didn’t hesitate, but she could look, couldn’t she? And they were coming with a speed she could scarcely believe from corpses that could hardly hold themselves together. One was wearing half a shirt. One was wearing nothing but boots, and the parts of its body that would otherwise be covered had come sloughing off—revealing gray-black bones underneath.
“Down,” Swakhammer insisted. He jammed his hand onto the top of her head, and she ducked to follow the shove of his palm.
She almost fell, mirroring Hank’s sloppy toppling; but at the last moment her hand snared the top rung and she swung down in a gangly slide, knocking her knees against the walls and the ladder edges. She stopped at the bottom and slipped, then regained her footing. Her naked hand splashed down onto the floor and she hoped her gloves were in her coat pockets. Otherwise, she didn’t know where they’d gone off to.
A hand lifted her by the elbow, and in the darkness she saw Frank’s concerned face above her. “Ma’am,” he said. “You all right?”
“Fine,” she told him, rising to her feet and moving away just in time to keep from getting landed on by Swakhammer, who dropped down into the deeper chamber with a stomp and a splash.
He reached up and locked his hands around the underside handles. “Lucy,” he said, and he didn’t need to say anything else.
She was already there, her mechanical fist cinched around a trio of steel bars that could’ve been anything before they were used as braces. Lucy passed them up to Swakhammer one at a time, and he held on tight with one hand while he threaded the bars through the handles with his other one.
From above, fleshless fingers picked angrily at the cracks, but there was no outer hole and Swakhammer had brought the crowbar down below. As a last gesture of defiance and security, he jammed the prying device into a handle and let it serve as an extra brace.
While the hands and feet of the dead things stomped and scratched above, Briar tried to scan the tunnel’s atmosphere and figure out where she was. Surely this was the deepest she’d ever been beneath the world, below a basement and down into the bowels of something else—something lower and wetter. This place was not like the finished, brick-lined tunnels that Swakhammer had led her through in order to get to Maynard’s; this was a hole dug beneath a solid place, and it unnerved her. It reminded her of another hole beneath another solid place. It made her think of a spot beneath her former home where a catastrophe machine had burrowed its way out into the world, and back again.
It smelled the same, like wet mud and moss, and decomposing sawdust. It stunk like something unfinished and not yet born.
She shivered and clutched herself and her Spencer close, but the warmth of the freshly fired rifle didn’t do much to penetrate her coat. All around her, the others huddled together. Their discomfort fed hers, until she was so nervous that her teeth were rattling together.
Finally the trapdoor was as secure as it was going to get, and Swakhammer’s bulky shadow stood under the noisy roof. He said, “Lucy, where’re the lanterns at? We still got some down here?”
“We got one,” she said. Briar didn’t like the sound of her voice when she shaped that last word, like there was something faulty about it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Lucy said, “There ain’t hardly any oil in it. I don’t know how far it’ll get us. But, here, you take it, Jeremiah. You’ve got your tinder-strike, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma am.”
The object in his hand was about the size of an apple; and he struggled with it: His large, gloved fingers were too dull to move it.
“Here,” Briar said. She pulled off her mask and shoved it back in her satchel, and she reached out to take the thing. “Tell me what to do with it.”
He handed it over and said, “Don’t take that mask, off yet, missy. We’re going up before we’re going back down.” Then he pointed at a thumb-shaped switch. “Press that down. No, faster. Harder. Shove it with your fingers.”
She tried to follow his instructions and, after four or five attempts, a splatter of sparks caught a thick, charred wick and the flame illuminated the tiny crowd. “Now what?”
“Now you give it back to me, and you put your mask back on like I told you. Lucy, you need help with yours?”
“Don’t be a dummy, boy. I’ve got it under control,” the barkeep said. With her one arm she pulled a folded lace-covering out from under her skirt and flapped it open. To answer the question on Briar’s face she said, “This is one of Minnericht’s experiments. It’s lighter than what you’ve got and it works real good, but it doesn’t work for very long. I won’t have an hour with these skinny filters. Mostly I keep it tucked in my garter for emergencies.”
“Will an hour be enough?” Briar asked.
Lucy shrugged, and she popped the mask over her eyes and chin with a move that couldn’t have been smoother if she’d had two arms. “One way or another. We’ll find some candles stashed before that’s up.”
As all around her the other residents of the tunnel produced and donned masks, Briar joined the movement and reapplied her own. “I hate this thing,” she complained.
“Nobody loves them,” Varney assured her.
“Except Swakhammer,” Hank said. He still sounded tipsy, but he was awake and on his own two feet, so his condition was significantly improved. “He loves his.”
The armored man cocked his head to the left and agreed. “Sure. But let’s be honest: Mine looks amazing.”
Lucy said through her compressed cotton and coal filters, “Who says men aren’t vain?”
“I never said it.”
“Good. So I don’t have to call you a liar. You men and your toys.”
“Please,” Briar interrupted. The closeness of the quarters made her restless, and the wet chill was seeping into her clothes. “What do we do now? Where do we go? Mr. Swakhammer, you said up and then out.”
“That’s right. We’ll have to come back and clean up Maynard’s later.”
She frowned inside her mask. “Then we’re going to another safe spot? A safer spot, I mean. Maybe I should take off now and see about finding Zeke.”
“Oh no you don’t. Not with those things swarming, and not on old filters. You’d never make it, crack shot or no. We’ll head for the old vault and regroup there. Then we’ll talk about clearing the topside and taking on the bank blocks.”
“Bossy old bastard, aren’t you?” she huffed.
“Yet quite reasonable” he said, without having taken any offense.
Willard lifted the lantern, and Swakhammer adjusted the glass. Soon the whole tunnel was alight with a weak orange glow as wet as juice.
Moisture glistened off the incomplete walls, and Briar was only somewhat reassured to see support columns rearing up from the earth and disappearing into the ceiling—the underside of Maynard’s floor. Shovels lounged against the walls and were almost consumed by them; the digging tools sank into the muddy surface and jutted against carts. From the carts, Briar’s eyes followed the scene down to the tracks beneath them, and then she realized that this was a deliberate place—not simply some cooling cellar.
“What’s going on here?” she asked. “You’ve been clearing this out, haven’t you?”
Lucy answered. “Always deeper, dear. Always deeper. For things just like this, you see? We can’t go up, not really. We don’t have the materials, or the wherewithal, or any safe means of doing so. These walls bind us inside as surely as they hold the world at bay. So if we need to expand—if we need to make more safe places, or create new roads—we have to go down.”
Briar stretched her chest to take a deep breath inside her mask, and she grimaced at the musty gray taste of the air she drew. “But don’t you ever worry? Like you’re undermining the whole place—like it might all come collapsing down?”
From the back of the group Frank said, “Minnericht,” as if it explained everything.
Swakhammer said, “He’s a goddamned monster, but he’s brilliant. The plans are his. He’s the one who laid it all out and told us how to pull the dirt away without hurting the building, but we stopped doing it about six months ago.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Long story,” he said, and he didn’t sound like he meant to expound on the subject. “Let’s move.”
“To where?” Briar demanded, even as she fell into step behind him.
“To the old vault, I said. You’ll like it. It’s closer to the bank, blocks. We’ll get out and take a look around. Maybe we’ll see if your boy’s been there.”
“Right at the edge of it. We’re headed for the old Swedish Trust—the only one that didn’t go under. What happened was, the foundation was undermined by the Boneshaker; and the big metal vault was too heavy for the floor. So it sank. And we use it as a front door.” He lifted the lantern up high and looked back over his shoulder. “We got everybody?”
“We got everybody,” Lucy confirmed. “Keep moving, big man. We’re right behind you.”
In some places the way widened so far that the light from the wiggling flame couldn’t penetrate its edges; and in some areas the going was so tight that Swakhammer had to turn himself sideways to squeeze through.
Briar trundled along behind him in the middle of the pack, tracking that weak yellow light and chasing its shadows from inside her miserable mask.