“Wake up. Wake up, boy. You alive, or are you dead?”
Zeke wasn’t sure who was talking, or if he was the one being spoken to.
His jawline itched all the way up to his ears—that’s what he noticed first. The skin felt burned, like he’d gone and laid down on a stovetop. Next, he noticed the weight on his belly, the uneven pressure of something heavy and hard. Then he felt a pain jabbing at his back, where he was lying against something uneven and possibly sharp.
And someone was shaking him, wiggling his head back and forth and fighting for his attention. The room smelled funny.
“Boy, you wake up now. Boy, don’t you play dead. I can see you breathing.”
He couldn’t figure out who the speaker was. Not his mother. And not… Rudy, whose name made him start and almost drag himself straight to horrified consciousness. Remembering was the tricky part, and the awful part. Suddenly he knew where he was, approximately.
He opened his eyes, and did not exactly recognize the face above his.
Almost androgynous with age, the face belonged to a woman, Ezekiel decided. She was old enough to be his grandmother, he was certain, but it was hard to be more precise by the light of her lantern. Her skin was a shade or two darker than his own, the color of a good suede tobacco pouch or the hair of a deer. The jacket she wore had belonged to a man, once. It was cut to fit someone bigger, and her pants were rolled and cinched to keep them from falling down. Her eyes were a pure dark brown like coffee, and they were framed with graying eyebrows that jutted from her forehead like awnings.
Her hands moved like crabs, fast and stronger than they looked. She squeezed the sides of his face.
“You’re breathing, ain’t you?”
“Yes… ma’am,” he told her.
He wondered what he was doing on his back. He wondered where Rudy was. He wondered how he’d gotten here, and how long he’d been there, and how he was going to get home.
The fluffy gray brows above him furrowed. “You didn’t take in no Blight, did you?”
“Couldn’t say, ma’am.” He was still lying, still wondering. Gazing up at her and too dazed to do anything but answer a direct question.
She stood upright, and only then did Zeke realize that she’d been crouched beside him. “If you’d taken any inside you, you wouldn’t be able to smart off. So I say you’re fine, unless you’ve broken something I can’t see. Have you broken anything?”
“Not sure, ma’am.”
“Ma’am. Aren’t you a funny thing.” It wasn’t a question.
“Not trying to be funny,” he mumbled, and tried to sit up. Something large and flat was blocking the way, and when he wrapped his fingers around it to push it aside, he realized it was a door. “Why is there a door on top of me?”
“Boy, that door done saved your life, it did. You wore it like a shield, all the way down the stairs. It kept you from getting crushed like you oughta have. What happened, see, is that an airship hit the tower. It crash-landed, you might say, right against the side. If it’d hit any harder, it could’ve broken through the cleaned-up floors all together, and then you’d have been one dead little boy, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so, ma’am. Ma’am?” he asked.
“Stop calling me ma’am.”
“All right, ma’am,” he said from habit, not orneriness. “I’m sorry. I only wondered if you were the princess we met down in the tunnels. Are you the princess?”
“You call me Miss Angeline. That’s name enough for me, boy.”
Zeke said, “Miss Angeline. I’m Zeke.”
He flexed his legs to kick the door away from him, and he sat up. And with her help he stood, but without her help he would’ve slumped right back down to the floor again. Stars and foam gushed across his eyes, and he couldn’t see a thing for all the brilliant black light in his head. The sparkles throbbed in time to a vein on his temple.
He pulled himself together and thought that this was how it felt to faint; and then he thought that Princess Angeline had arms stronger than just about any man he’d ever met.
She was holding him, lifting him up and propping him against a wall. She said, “I don’t know what became of your deserter. He deserted you, too, I reckon.”
“Rudy,” Zeke said. “He told me he didn’t desert.”
“And he’s a liar, too. Here, take your mask back. The air in here ain’t so good; some of the windows broke upstairs and the bad air’s leaking inside. You’re back down in the basement now, and it’s better here than some other places, but all the seals are shot.”
“My mask. My filters are getting all stuffy.”
“No they ain’t. I cut two of mine down and stuck ’em in your slots. You’ll be all right again for a while—plenty long enough to get out of town, anyway.”
He complained, “I can’t get out of town yet. I came here to go up Denny Hill.”
“Boy, you ain’t no place near Denny Hill. It’s like I tried to tell you down in the Rough End tunnels, old Osterude wasn’t running you back home. He was running you down to the old devil they call Dr. Minnericht, and Jesus Christ knows what would happen to you then, but I don’t. Zeke,” she said more softly, “you’ve got a momma outside, and if you don’t get yourself home, she’s gonna worry herself something awful. Don’t you do that to her. Don’t you make her think she’s lost her child.”
A flash of pain quickened her face, and for a moment it looked like stone.
The stone flexed and fell away. “It ain’t right, to do a mother like that. You got to get yourself home. You already been gone all day—a whole day—and it’s past nighttime again, practically morning. Come with me now, won’t you?” She held out her hand and he took it, for lack of knowing what else to do. “I think I’ve scared you up a quick passage back to the Outskirts.”
“Maybe, maybe that’s best,” he said. “I can always come back later, can’t I?”
“Sure enough, if you want to get yourself killed. I’m trying to do you a kindness, here.”
“I know, and I thank you,” he said, still uncertain. “But I don’t want to leave, not yet. I don’t want to go until I’ve seen the old house.”
“You’re in no shape for that, young man. None at all. Look at you, all banged-up head and torn-up clothes. You’re lucky you ain’t dead. You’re lucky I came after you, meaning to pull you away from that old devil with his fire-breathing cane.”
“I liked his cane,” Zeke said, and he reluctantly accepted the return of his mask. “It was neat. Helped him walk, and helped him defend himself, too. After the war where he got hurt—”
She cut in. “Osterude didn’t get hurt in no war. He ran away from it before he had time to get blowed up. He hurt his hip when he fell down drunk a couple years ago, and now he sucks down opium, whiskey, and yellow sap to keep it from hurting him too much. Don’t you forget this, boy—he ain’t your friend. Or maybe heweren’t your friend, I don’t know if the slide done killed him or not. I can’t find him, no how.”
“Are we in the basement? ” Zeke changed the subject.
“That’s right, just like I told you. You slid back all the way down when the ship crashed into the tower, like I said.”
“A ship crashed into the tower? Why’d it do that?” he asked.
“Well it wasn’t on purpose, you silly thing. I don’t rightly know why. Brink’s a pretty good captain, but I don’t recognize the ship he’s flying now. It must be new, and maybe he ain’t used to running it yet. They must’ve had a little accident, that’s all—and now they’re up there, fixing the damage before they take off again.”
His eyes adjusted to the lantern light and he realized, with some difficulty, that she was holding something stranger than a regular, oil-based device. “What’s that?”
“It’s a lantern.”
“A good and bright one, that the rain won’t likely put out,” she said. “Now get yourself up, boy. We need to get you up a few floors to the tower’s top, where the ship’s hanging tight. It’s a piecemeal, hodgepodge of a pirate’s thing called the Clementine. And just so you know”—she lowered her voice—“when I said that the captain’s flying a new ship, I didn’t mean it’s a brand-new craft. I mean, like as not he stole it.”
“And you’re just gonna hand me over to him?” Zeke grumbled. “I don’t like the sound of that—pirates dropping me over a wall.”
But she insisted, “They won’t give you no guff. I’ve bought ’em off good, and they know me too well to hurt you once I’ve taken their word. They won’t treat you too softly, but they won’t hurt you none worse than you’re already battered.”
Alternately motherly and general-like, the princess ushered him into the rubble of the stairwell and told him, “Come on, now. The way upstairs is more clear than it looks. Everything dumped out at the bottom, same as you.”
Zeke didn’t know how to feel as he followed her spry, sidestepping climb. There was absolutely no light except for the peculiar white gleam of Angeline’s lantern, even when they scaled a flight or two and he could see through the empty, unfinished floors how black the night was on the other side of the windows. It was dark, and so late that it’d become early.
“I left her a note, but… my mother’s going to kill me.”
The princess said, “That all depends on timing. The trick is, you’ve got to be gone long enough that she stops being mad, but starts to worry… but you don’t want to make her worry too much, otherwise she’ll tip back over to anger.”
Zeke smiled in his mask as he rose behind her. “You must have kids of your own.”
She did not smile back. Zeke knew because he did not hear an upturned twitch of her mouth when she hesitated on the next debris-littered stair and kept walking. She said, “I had a daughter once. A long time ago.”
Something in her tone kept Zeke from following up with any polite inquiries.
He huffed and puffed up after her, marveling at her energy and strength; and he found other inappropriate things to wonder and stifle. He was desperate to ask how old she was, but he bit that question back only by asking instead, “Why do you dress like a man?”
“Because I feel like it.”
“That’s weird,” he said.
She replied, “Good.” And then she said, “You can ask the other question if you want to. I know you’re wondering. You wonder it so loud I can almost hear it. It’s like listening to the crows outside.”
Zeke had no idea what any of that meant, but he wasn’t about to directly ask how long she’d walked upon the earth, so he came at it sideways. “How come there aren’t any young people here?”
“Well, Rudy’s old enough to be my dad, at least. And I saw some Chinamen, but most of them looked that old or… even older. And then there’s… you. Is everyone down here…”
“Old?” she finished for him. “Keeping in mind that your idea of old and my idea of old are two different things, you’ve noticed rightly. And sure enough, there’s a reason for it. It’s an easy reason, and you could think of it yourself if you tried hard.”
He pushed a toppled beam up out of his way so he could walk past it instead of climb under it. “I’m a little busy for thinking,” he told her.
“Well ain’t that something. Too busy for thinking. Busy is when you ought to think the fastest. Otherwise, how you expect to last down here any longer than a flea lasts on a dog?” She paused on a landing and waited for him to catch up to her. Lifting the lantern and looking up and down, she said, “I hear them up there, the men on the ship. They aren’t real sweet, not any given one of them, but I think you’ll be all right. You’re willing to think on the fly, aren’t you?”
“All right, then tell me now, while we walk, why there aren’t hardly no kids like you down here.”
“Because…” He recalled Rudy’s mention of the Chinese men and why they had no women. “There aren’t any women here. And women usually take care of kids.”
She pretended to be offended, and said, “No women? I’m a woman if ever you saw one. We’ve got women down here.”
“But I meant young women,” he babbled, and then heard how wrong it was. “I meant, younger women than… I meant, women who might have babies. I know there aren’t no Chinese women. Rudy said so.”
“Well, what do you know? Rudy told you the truth about something. He was right there, yes. There ain’t no Chinawomen here in the city, or if there are, I ain’t seen them. But I tell you what, I know of at least one other woman who lives down here. She’s a one-armed bar-keep named Lucy O’Gunning, and one arm or many, she’ll break down doors or men or rotters. She’s a tough old bird,” Angeline said with no small trace of admiration. “But saying that, I should also say, she’s old enough to be my daughter. And she’s old enough to be your mother—or maybe even your grandmother. So keep thinking, boy. Why aren’t there any young folks here?”
“Give me a hint,” he begged, chasing after her, up the next clogged and dusty flight of stairs. He didn’t know how many they’d scaled, but he was tired and he didn’t want to climb any farther. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t slowing down, and she was the one with the light, so he tagged along behind.
“You want a hint, all right. How long ago did the walls go up?”
“Fifteen years,” he said. “Give or take a couple of months. Momma said they were finished on the day I was born.”
“Is that so?”
“That’s how I heard it,” he swore.
And he began to think of how many years fifteen was, if you weren’t a baby to start with. He thought about how old his mother had been—barely twenty, fifteen years ago. He tried, speaking slowly as he worked to breathe against his mask and his exhaustion, “Most of the folks in here, have they been here all this time?”
“Most of them, yep.”
“So if they were grown men—and women,” he added fast, “in their twenties and thirties… now they’re all in their thirties and forties, at least.”
She stopped and swung the light around, nearly clapping him in the forehead. “There you go! Good boy. Good thinking, even while you’re panting like a puppy.” After a thoughtful pause she added, “I hear there’s a couple of boys down in Chinatown, brought inside by their dads or uncles. Orphans, some of them might be. I don’t know. And Minnericht, since that’s what he calls himself—he’s been known to bring down a younger crew once in a while. But you got to understand, most people who didn’t start out down here… they can’t get used to it. They don’t stay long. I can’t say as I blame them.”
“Me either,” he said, and he wished hard for three wishes—the very first of which would send him home, should the universe be so kind. He was worn out, and nauseous from the filtered, stinking air, and his skin was smudged raw around all its edges. The face of the murdered Chinese man kept flitting through his mind when he shut his eyes, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near the body—not even within the same city walls.
“Soon,” Angeline promised him.
“Soon, you’ll be out and on your way home.”
His eyes narrowed behind his visor and he said, “Can you read people’s thoughts or something?”
She said, “No. But I read people pretty good.”
Zeke could hear a background hum then, above him and off to the left—the banging din of tools against steel and the hoarse swearing of unhappy men in protective masks. Every now and again the building would quiver as if it’d been struck again, and each of these shocks made Zeke grab for the wall to steady himself. Rudy was right about two things. There were no women in Chinatown, and there were no rails in the unfinished tower.
“Miss Angeline?” he broached, and around the next corner the world grew a few shades lighter, or he thought it did.
“What is it?” she asked. “We’re almost there. See? The windows are more broken, and what’s left of the moonlight’s coming inside. We’re right up close to where they crashed against the side of this old place.”
“That’s fine. I was just wondering. Rudy wouldn’t say, and you haven’t mentioned—who’s this Dr. Minnericht you’ve both been talking about?”
The princess didn’t quite stop, but she jerked and shuddered, like she’d seen a ghost or a murder. Something in her posture tightened and coiled. She looked like a skinny-armed clock wound up too tight and ready to break.
She said, “That ain’t his name.”
And she turned around to him, again almost hitting him with her lantern, for she didn’t know how close he trailed in her wake. Even inside the mask her face was a shadowbox of canyons and peaks; her hawk’s-beak nose and deep-set, slightly slanted eyes made a map of someone’s anger.
With her free hand she grabbed Zeke’s shoulder and pulled him close, until the warm white light was almost a burn against his face. She shook him and pulled him near, and she said, “If something goes wrong, perhaps you ought to know—we’re in his land, in this part of the city. If hell comes for us with a handbasket and a one-way ticket and you don’t make this ship, or if you fall, and if he finds you, you may as well be prepared for him.”
Upstairs the men were swearing louder, speaking in English with a world’s assortment of accents. Zeke tried not to hear them, and tried not to see the cavernous wrinkles in the princess’s leather face. But he was transfixed by her rage, and he couldn’t move, even to disentangle his stare from hers.
“He’s no doctor, and he’s no German—though that’s the name he’s taken. No Hessian, no foreign man and no local man, either. That’s what he likes to say,” she said. And then she started as if something new and horrible had occurred to her.
Her eyes caught fire and she hissed, “Whatever he tells you, whatever he says, he’s no native of this place and no man he ever claimed to be. He’ll never tell you the truth, because it’s worth his trouble to lie. If he finds you, he’ll want to keep you—and the more I think of it, the more I’m sure that’ll be his way. But nothing he tells you is true. Assume that, and you’ll survive an encounter with him, as likely as not. But…” She withdrew, and the boiling fear in her face cooled to a small, simmering pot.
“But we’ll just have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said, and patted him on the head, ruffling his hair and making the straps on his mask tug at his irritated skin. “So let’s get you upstairs, onto that ship.”
She released him and, smiling again, took the lead up one more interminable flight of stairs until the top came and fresh air spilled into the stairwell.
Ezekiel had to remind himself that the air wasn’t really fresh. It was just cold, and it came from outside. But that didn’t mean anything, and it surely didn’t mean he could yank his mask off—though he would’ve given anything to do so. He was shaken by Angeline’s tirade and unsettled by the rough, noisy men who worked on the floor above.
The princess led the way with her light, and she saluted the airship men with a swear word that made Zeke laugh.
They turned to watch the old woman glow with her wild, white lamp and the skinny, ruffle-haired boy behind her.
Zeke saw five of them, scattered around the room doing such useful things as patching holes and swinging mallets against bent bolts protruding from the hull of a ship so big that the boy couldn’t see the end of it. Only one small part of the hull had crammed itself against the row of windows, which had been broken into dust by the impact of the ship’s collision.
The Clementine had either stuck there or forcibly docked there, and Zeke didn’t know the difference—or if it mattered.
Lashed against the wall’s support beams, the floating ship was drawn almost inside the building, where the five men worked on its more battered parts. A large hole was coming closed under the sweaty, leaning force of a man with a crowbar the size of a small tree, and a tall white man in a dark orange mask was restringing a web of ropy nets.
Two of the five saluted the princess back with more profanity. One of them looked like he might be in charge.
His hair was bright red under the straps of his mask, and his wide, burly body was marked with elaborate inkwork and scars. On one arm, Zeke spied a silver-scaled fish; and on the other he saw a dark blue bull.
Angeline asked him, “Captain Brink, you almost ready to fly off again?”
“Yes, Miss Angeline,” he replied. “Once this split in the hull is all smoothed shut, we’ll be able to take off and take a passenger or two. This your friend?”
“This is the boy,” she said, dodging the implication, if there was one. “You can set him down anyplace outside, just take him outside. And on your next pass-through, I’ll give you the rest of what I promised.”
He adjusted his mask while he looked Zeke up and down, like a horse he was thinking about buying. “That’s fine with me, ma’am. But just so you know, our next pass-through might be some ways off. We’re in a bit of a rush to get going, and get going far.”
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Just chasing the market,” he answered vaguely. Then he said, “Nothing for you two to worry about, no problem. Boy, you come on inside. Angeline, you sure you don’t need a wing out of the city?”
“No, Captain, I don’t. I’ve got business to attend to here. I’ve got a deserter to shoot,” she added under her breath, but Zeke heard her.
He asked, “You’re not really going to shoot him, are you?”
“No, probably not. Like as not, I’ll pin him.” She said it offhandedly and watched the airmen work their repairs. She said to Brink, “This don’t look like the last ship of yours I saw.”
He’d picked up a mallet and was beating down another pinched plate. He stopped and told her, “Matter of fact, she’s new. You’re a sharp-eyed woman to notice.”
“And her name’s Clementine?”
“That’s right. Named after my momma, who ain’t lived long enough to see it fly.”
She said, “That’s sweet of you,” but there was doubt in her words, for all she tried to keep Zeke from hearing it.
He whispered, “Is something wrong?”
“No,” she did not whisper back. “It’s all fine. I know these fellas,” she assured him. “That there is Captain Brink, as you’ve done guessed by now. Beside him there’s his first mate, Parks; and over there with the nets is Mr. Guise. Ain’t that right?”
“That’s right,” the captain said, without looking over his shoulder. “And the two you don’t recognize are Skyhand and Bearfist. They’re brothers. I picked them up in Oklahoma, last time we kicked through there.”
“Oklahoma,” Angeline echoed. “You two brothers of mine?” she asked them.
Zeke frowned. “You’ve got brothers you don’t know?”
“No, you dumb boy,” she said without any real venom. “I wondered if they was native, like me. Or maybe what tribe they hailed from.”
But neither of the men answered. They kept working, elbows-deep in a boiler-shaped engine that was blackened at one end and steaming ominously from the other.
Brink said, “They aren’t out to disrespect you, Miss Angeline. Neither one of them speaks English too good. I don’t think Duwamish would be clear to ’em either. They work as hard as mules, though, and they know their way around machinery.”
Under the straps of their masks Zeke could see dark, straight hair. Their forearms were browned, but it might have only been ash or soot that darkened them. Still, he could see they were Indians like Miss Angeline. Neither of the men looked up, and if they knew they were being discussed, they didn’t care about it any.
Zeke asked Angeline, very quietly, “How well do you know these guys?
“We’re all acquainted.”
The captain said, “Anyway, we’ll be able to lift off in a few minutes.” Zeke thought he sounded like a man who was trying not to sound agitated.
First Mate Parks glanced out the window, or he tried—but of course his ship was in the way. He exchanged a look with the captain, who made rushing gestures as if everyone ought to hurry.
He asked, “How close are we to done?”
Mr. Guise, a meaty man in rolled-up pants and an undershirt, said, “Done enough to fly now, I think. Let’s load up and hit the sky.”
Princess Angeline was watching the scene with worry, which she painted over with optimism when she caught Zeke looking at her and saw that the worry was catching. She said, “It’s time. And it’s been nice to meet you, Zeke. You seem like a nice enough boy, and I hope your mother doesn’t beat you too bad. Get on home now, and maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”
For a moment Zeke thought he was in for a hug, but the princess didn’t squeeze him. She only walked away, back down to the corridor, where she disappeared down the stairs.
Zeke stood awkwardly in the midst of the windblown room with the broken windows and the battered warship.
The word fluttered through his brain, and he didn’t know why. The Clementine was only a dirigible, patchwork and piecemeal stuck together to make a machine that could fly across the mountains to move cargo of any kind. So perhaps, he told himself, there was some segment of something rougher built into that matte black hull.
He asked the captain, who was stuffing his tools into a cylindrical leather bag big enough to hold another man, “Sir? Where should I—”
“Anywheres fine,” he answered hastily. “Princess paid your way, and we won’t do wrong by her. She’s an old lady, for sure, but I wouldn’t double-cross her. I like my insides right where they are, thank you much.”
“Erm… thank you, sir. Should I just… go inside?”
“Do that, yeah. Stay close by the door. The way things are going, we’ll probably have to kick you out a little higher up than we’d like.”
Zeke’s eyes went huge. “You’re just going to… throw me out of the ship?”
“Oh, we’ll put a rope around you first. We won’t let you splat too hard, all right?”
“All right,” Zeke said, but he didn’t think the captain was joking, and he was going weak with fear.
Just like Angeline’s worry was contagious, the impatience and nervousness of the swiftly working crew was knocking against the boy’s psyche, too. Something about their movements had become even more frenetic and hurried when Angeline had left the room, lending Zeke the impression that they’d been putting on a front for her. He didn’t like it.
Jammed against the building’s side and wedged quite firmly in place, a portal in the hull had been propped open for the crew members to come and go. Zeke pointed at the portal and the captain nodded at him, encouraging him to let himself inside.
“But don’t touch anything! That’s a direct order, kid, and if you disobey it you’d better grow wings before we take air. Otherwise I’ll leave out the rope,” he promised.
Zeke held up his hands and said, “I hear you, I hear you. I won’t touch anything. I’m just going to stand inside, right here, and…” He realized that no one was listening to him, so he stopped talking and stepped gingerly through the portal.
The interior of the ship was bleak and cold, and not completely dry; but it was brighter than Zeke would’ve expected, scattered throughout with small gas lamps that were mounted to the walls on swinging arms. One was broken, and its pieces were ground into the floor.
He straightened and peered from corner to corner, being careful to keep his hands from even brushing past the complicated controls and dangling levers. His mother used to have an expression about avoiding even the appearance of evil, and he stuck to it quite firmly as a matter of self-preservation.
The cargo hold was open and gaping. When Zeke poked his head inside he saw boxes stacked in the corners, and bags hanging from the ceiling. His old buddy Rector had told him a little bit about the way Blight was collected for processing, so he could guess what the bags were for; but the boxes weren’t labeled in any way, and he had no idea what they might contain. So the Clementine wasn’t moving gas; it was moving some other cargo instead.
Outside someone loudly dropped a wrench.
Zeke leaped back as if he’d been struck, though no one was near him and no one seemed to notice that he’d left the doorway where he’d been ordered to stand. He retreated quickly and planted himself beside the portal, where Mr. Guise and Parks were carrying their tools back inside. Neither man gave him a second look, though the captain complained when he tried to follow them. “You’re staying there, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Good lad. There’s a strap above your head. Hang onto it. We’re shoving off.”
“Now?” Zeke peeped.
Mr. Guise pulled a jacket off the back of a chair and shrugged his shoulders into it. “Twenty minutes ago would’ve been better, but now will work.”
“It’d better,” Parks complained. “They’ll be on our tail any minute,” he said. Then he saw Zeke out of the corner of his eye, and stopped himself from saying more.
“I know,” the captain agreed with whatever abbreviated thought had been on Parks’s tongue. “And Guise is off by about forty minutes. Damn us all for blowing the hour’s head start.”
Parks gritted his teeth so hard that his jawline, visible outside his mask, was as sharp as granite. “It’s not my fault the thrusters were marked wrong. I wouldn’t have hit the goddamned tower on purpose.”
“No one said it was your fault,” Brink said.
“No one had better say it, either,” Parks growled.
Zeke laughed nervously and said, “I’m not, that’s for sure.”
Everyone ignored him. The Indian brothers came on board and immediately began yanking the portal shut. The rounded door stuck, then succumbed to the force of four arms pulling and popped itself into place. A wheel on the door was spun and locked, and everyone assumed a position in the crowded, cluttered deck.
“Where are the goddamned steam vents?” Mr. Guise threw up his fingers and flexed them into a fist.
“Try the left panel,” the captain urged.
Mr. Guise sat down in the main chair and it swiveled and rocked. He braced his feet down beneath the console and tried to draw the chair closer to the control panel, but it wouldn’t budge.
Zeke retreated against the wall and leaned there, his hand tangled in the strap that hung down above his head. He caught one of the Indian brothers—he didn’t know which one—looking at him, so he said, “You uh… haven’t been flying this ship long, have you?”
“Shut that kid up,” Parks said without turning around. “I don’t care how you do it, but shut him up or I’m going to shut him up.”
The captain glowered back and forth between Zeke and Parks, and he settled on Zeke, who was already blabbering, “I’ll be quiet! I’ll shut up, I’m sorry, I was just, I was only, I was making conversation.”
“Nobody wants your conversation,” Mr. Guise told him.
The captain agreed. “Just keep your mouth closed and you’ll be fine, and I won’t have to answer to that deranged old lady. Don’t make us throw you out without a net or a rope, boy. We’ll do it if we have to, and I’ll tell her it was an accident. She won’t be able to prove otherwise.”
Zeke had already assumed as much. He made himself as small as he could, crushing his bony back against the boards and trying hard not to choke on his own fear.
“You got that?” the captain asked, looking him straight in the eye.
“Yes sir,” he breathed. He wanted to ask if he could remove the mask, but he didn’t want to take the risk of angering anyone else. He was pretty sure that any given man on board would’ve shot him in the head as soon as told him “hello.”
The mask’s seals scrubbed against his skin, and the straps constricted his skull so hard he thought his brain would come out his nose. Zeke wanted to cry, but he was too afraid to even sniffle, and he figured that was just as well.
Mr. Cruise fumbled with a row of buttons, smashing them almost randomly, as if he didn’t know what any of them did. “There’s no release latch for those miserable clamps. How are we supposed to disengage from the—”
“We’re not docked like normal,” Parks told him. “We’re smashed against the tower. We’ll go outside and pry the thing out ourselves, if we have to.”
“We don’t have time. Where’s the grapple release? Is there a kit for it over there? A lever or something? We got the hooks to deploy for stability; how do we call them back to disengage? ”
Brink said, “Here, maybe this?” He leaned over his first mate and stretched one pale arm out to grab a lever and tug it.
The sound of something clacking outside relieved everyone inside. “Did that do it? Are we loose?” Mr. Guise demanded, as if anyone knew any better than he did.
The ship itself answered them, shifting in the hole it’d broken into the side of the half-built tower. It settled and listed to the left and down. Zeke felt less like theClementine had disengaged than that it was falling out of place. The boy’s stomach sank and then soared as the airship tumbled away from the building and seemed to freefall. It caught and righted itself, and the dirigible’s lower decks quit rocking like a grandmother’s chair.
Zeke was going to throw up.
He could feel the vomit that he’d swallowed after watching the Chinaman’s murder. It crept up his throat, burning the flesh it found and screaming demands to be let out.
“I’m going to—” he said.
“Puke in your mask and that’s what you’re breathing till we set you down, boy,” the captain warned. “Take off your mask and you’re dead.”
Zeke’s throat burbled, and he burped, tasting bile and whatever he’d last eaten, though he couldn’t remember what that might have been. “I won’t,” he said, because saying the words gave his mouth something to do other than spew. “I won’t throw up,” he said to himself, and he hoped that he gave that impression to the rest of the men, or that they could ignore him, at least.
A left-facing thruster fired and the ship shot in a circle before stabilizing and rising.
“Smooth” the captain accused.
Parks said, “Go to hell.”
“We’re up,” Mr. Guise announced. “We’re steady.”
The captain added, “And we’re out of here.”
“Shit,” said one of the Indian brothers. It was the first English Zeke had heard from either of their mouths, and it didn’t sound good.
Zeke tried to stop himself, but he couldn’t. He asked, “What’s going on? ”
“Jesus,” Captain Brink blasphemed with one eye on the rightmost window. “Crog and his buddy have found us. Holy hell, I figured it’d take him a little longer. Everybody, buckle down. Hang on tight, or we’re all of us dead.”