Ears ringing, Zeke kicked against the hatch until it was wide enough for him to squeeze himself out into the city, which was exactly where he didn’t want to be. But all things being equal, he’d rather be outside in the Blight than inside with the airmen, who were slowly unfastening themselves from their belted seats and moaning or fussing as they patted themselves down.
The silent and inscrutable Fang was nowhere to be seen, until Zeke located him standing beside the captain and looking back at Zeke with one eye.
The captain said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“It’s been fun, but it’s time for me to get going,” Zeke said, trying to come across as droll and not shaken. He thought it’d make a great line to leave them with, but the hatch wasn’t quite clear enough to permit him to pass. He shoved his feet against it, using his legs as levers.
The captain unfolded himself from his leaning seat and murmured something to Fang, who nodded. Then the captain asked, “What’s your name, boy?”
Zeke didn’t answer. He scaled the lip of the hatch, leaving bloody handprints on every spot he touched.
“Boy? Fang, grab him, he’s hurt—boy?”
But Zeke was already out. He leaped to the ground and shoved his shoulders back against the door, jamming it shut only temporarily, but long enough for him to stumble into a run across the compound.
Behind him, from inside the belly of the crippled ship, Zeke could’ve sworn that he heard someone call his name.
But that was ridiculous. He’d never told them what it was.
It must’ve been something else they cried after him, some other word that his ears took to be his name in a fit of confusion.
He swiveled his head left and right, and his vision swam, though the sights told him almost nothing. There were walls—the city walls, he thought at first—but no, these were smaller and made of great, mushy logs with pointed tops; and the spots between them had been cemented with something else, so they presented a uniform front.
Someone on the ship had said something about a fort.
He racked his brains to recall his maps and remembered something about Decatur, where settlers used to hole up against the locals during times of trouble. Was this it?
The log walls that surrounded him looked like they could be punched down in a pinch. They’d been standing and rotting in the wet, poisonous air for a hundred years, or that’s what Zeke guessed in his addled state. A hundred years and they were crumbling to spongy splinters but still standing—and there weren’t any handholds anywhere he could see.
Around him the Blight-fog clumped and cluttered the air, and he could not see more than a few feet in any direction. He was panting again, losing control of his measured breathing inside the mask, and wheezing against the filters. The seals made his face itch, and every gasp he drew tasted like bile and whatever he’d last eaten.
Behind him, somewhere in the soupy air, someone was kicking at the door of the crashed ship. Soon, the crew would be out. Soon, they could come for him again.
All the “soons” were scaring him; and all the stretches of rumpled wood walls were bleak and blank under his hands as he felt his way along them. He thrust his palms and fingers out, even though they ached and he didn’t know if they were bruised or broken or merely bent and exhausted. He flung his fingers and wiggled them at every crevice, trying to find a crack or a door or any other means of crawling under and out. He wasn’t a big kid. He could fit through an astonishingly small gap if it came to it, but without a sound and without a warning…
… it didn’t come to it.
A hand so strong that it didn’t feel real clamped down across Zeke’s mask-covered mouth, yanking him by the head and pulling him off his feet—into a recessed nook along the wall where the darkness was thick enough to hide almost anything.
It hid the pair of them, the boy and the hand that grabbed him; and the man who held him had arms that might be made of iron for all the softness in them.
Zeke didn’t struggle for two reasons. First, he could already tell that it was more useless than not; whoever was holding him was stronger and a little taller, and breathing without sounding like he was going to vomit or pass out at any moment—so clearly, the advantage went to his opponent. And second, he wasn’t entirely certain that he wasn’t being helped. After all, he didn’t want the men from the airship to find him, and they were scrambling out of their craft swearing and hollering as they surveyed the damage some fifty yards away.
Just when Zeke thought perhaps they were going to resume their search, find him, and drag him back to the wounded vessel, the hands that held him began to haul him backward and sideways.
Zeke did his best to cooperate, but his best involved a collection of trips and stumbles on the way to whatever black place he was being drawn. A tiny creak peeped in the dark, and he felt a gust of cooler air brush across his shoulders.
A few more steps, another twisting of his feet against each other… and a door shut behind him. He was closed into a small room with a set of stairs and a pair of candles burning feebly above a railing.
His captor or rescuer—he didn’t know which—released him and allowed him to turn around.
Because Zeke wasn’t sure of his standing or peril, he hoped for the best and tried, “Thanks, sir. I think those guys were going to kill me!”
A pair of narrow brown eyes blinked slowly back at him. They were dark eyes, and calmly intelligent—but utterly unreadable. Their owner didn’t speak. He gazed down at the boy, for he was several inches taller than Zeke, with a long waist and long arms that folded across his chest. He was wearing what looked to Zeke like pajamas, but they were clean and unwrinkled, and whiter than anything that Zeke had yet seen inside the city walls.
And because the man had not yet said anything, Zeke mumbled, “They were going to kill me, weren’t they? And you… you’re not, are you?”
“What is your name?” the man asked, with only the faintest trace of a foreign accent.
“That’s a popular question today,” Zeke said, and then, because he was trapped in the semidark with this strange, strong man, he added, “It’s Zeke. Zeke Wilkes. I’m not trying to make any trouble. I just wanted to get out of the city. My mask is clogging up, and I don’t think I can last down here much longer. Can… can you help me?”
Again there was a protracted pause. Then the man said, “I can help you, yes. Come with me, Zeke Wilkes. I believe I know someone who would like to meet you.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Because of your parents.”
Zeke held still and tried to keep the pounding of his heart down to a dull roar. “What about them?” he asked. “I’m not here to make trouble or nothing. I was just looking for… I just wanted… Look. I know that my dad made problems and that he’s not exactly a local hero or anything, but—”
“You might be surprised,” the man said lightly. “This way, Zeke.” He indicated the stairs and the corridor at the bottom.
Zeke followed him on legs that shook from exhaustion, injury, and fear. “What does that mean? I might be surprised? Who are you—and did you know my father?”
“I am Yaozu, and I did not know a man named Leviticus Blue. But I know a Dr. Minnericht who can, I am sure, tell you quite a lot.” He checked over his shoulder, looking to meet Zeke’s eyes.
“What makes you think I want to ask him anything?”
Yaozu said, “You are a young man of a certain age. In my experience, young men of a certain age begin to question the world, and what they’ve been told about it. I think that you will find our strange doctor to be a most… interesting resource in your search.”
“I’ve heard about him,” Zeke said carefully.
“How long have you been down here?” Yaozu asked, turning a corner and stopping at a large, misshapen door surrounded by flaps and seals. He lifted a latch and pulled it hard, and the door retreated from its frame with a whooshing gasp.
“I don’t know. Not long. A day. Two days,” he guessed, though it felt like a week.
Yaozu held the door open and gestured for Zeke to walk through it. There was light on the other side of it, so he left the candle in a cranny on the wall. “If you’d been here longer than an hour, I would assume that you’ve heard of our doctor.”
Zeke stepped against a distinct and pulsing breeze, and once he was inside the next room, Yaozu followed him.
“So he’s important, huh?”
“Very important, yes,” the man said, but he sounded blandly unimpressed.
“And you work for him?”
The man didn’t answer immediately. But when he did, he said, “You could say that. We are partners, in a way. He is a great man with electricity, and mechanisms, and steam.”
“And what about you?” Zeke asked.
“Me?” He made a little noise that might’ve been a “hmm” or might’ve been an “oh.” He said, “I’m a businessman, of a sort. It is my business to maintain peace and order so that the doctor can work on his projects.” And immediately he changed the subject. “One more door, and then you may remove your mask. These are sealed, you understand. The clean air we catch, we must keep.”
“Sure.” Zeke watched as another door was dragged open against its flaps. On the other side was not another corridor, but a small room filled with lamps that lit all four corners. He said, “So you’re a lawman down here? Something like that?”
“Something like that.”
“My grandfather was a lawman.”
Yaozu said, “I know.” He shut the door behind them both and removed his mask, revealing a perfectly bald head and a smooth face that could have been twenty-five or fifty-five years old—Zeke found it impossible to guess. “You may remove yours as well. But be careful,” he said, wiggling a finger at the boy’s head. “You seem to have hurt yourself.”
“Good thing you’ve got a doctor down here, huh?”
“A good thing indeed. Come with me. I’ll take you to him now.”
“Now,” he said.
Zeke did not hear any request. He heard a command, and he didn’t know how to refuse it. He was afraid, of course, because of what Angeline had told him with her spittle-flecked fury; and he was nervous, because something about this calm Chinese man unsettled him deeply, and he could not put his finger on what it might be. The man had been exceedingly polite, but the strength in his arms and the insistence in his voice were not the tools of a friendly negotiator.
This was a man accustomed to being obeyed, and Zeke was not a boy accustomed to obeying.
But his queasy-stomached nervousness did not want to know what would happen if he fought, or ran—and his chest was aching from the struggle of simply breathing. He could figure out the details later. He could plot and plan and escape later, but for now, he could remove his mask. And that was enough.
The itching, burning, rubbed-raw spots around the mask’s straps burned like pepper on his skin, but then, with a buckle and a clip, the visor and filters came falling off his face. Zeke dropped the mask on the floor and tore at the red places with his fingernails.
Yaozu grabbed the boy’s forearm firmly and pulled it away. “Do not scratch. It will only make it worse. The doctor will give you an ointment, and the sting will ebb in time. This was your first time in a mask?”
“For longer than a few minutes, yeah,” he admitted, lowering his hands and struggling to keep them still.
“I see.” He picked up Zeke’s mask and examined it, turning it over and picking at the filter locks, and the visor. “This is an older model,” he observed. “And it needs to be cleaned.”
Zeke cringed. “Tell me about it.” Then he asked, “Where are we going?”
“Down. Underneath the old station that never was.” He gave Zeke an appraising sort of stare, taking in the boy’s battered clothes and uncut hair. “I think you’ll find the accommodations quite exceptional.”
“Indeed. We’ve created a home down here. Perhaps you’ll be surprised.”
Zeke said, “Most of what I’ve seen down here looked pretty rundown and crummy.”
“Ah, but you haven’t yet been to the station, have you?”
“Well then. Let me be the first to welcome you.” He went to the wall, where he pulled another lever.
Off in some place Zeke couldn’t see, chains rattled and gears turned. And right in front of him, the wall slid along a track, revealing a glorious room on the other side, filled with light.
It was also filled with marble and brass, and polished wood seats with velveteen cushions. The floor was a mosaic of tiles and metal. It shined a reflection off every corner, every crystal and candle. But the longer Zeke looked at the lights the longer he thought that maybe they weren’t flames at all; that maybe they were something else. After all, the lovely curved ceiling was not burned or smudged with soot.
Once he’d caught his breath, and once the wall had resumed its seamless position behind him, Zeke asked, “What are those lights up there? What powers them? I don’t smell gas, and I don’t see smoke.”
“They are powered by the future.” It was a cryptic answer, but it was not offered with any flair or tease. “This way. I’ll arrange a room for you, and a bath. I’ll ask the doctor if we can scare up any clothes, and perhaps some food and water. You’ve had a long set of days, and they haven’t treated you kindly.”
“Thanks,” he said without meaning it. But he liked the idea of food, and he was thirstier than he’d ever been before in his life—though he hadn’t noticed until the mention of water. “This place is beautiful,” he added. “You’re right. I’m surprised. I’m… impressed.”
“It is easy for it to be beautiful. No one ever treated it like a train station. It was not finished when the Blight came. The doctor and I finished small parts of it, like this waiting area, with the materials that had already been brought for its construction. It was almost perfect, but it needed some alterations.” He pointed at the ceiling, where three giant pipes with fans were installed in a row. They were not turning at that moment, but Zeke thought that the noise of them must have been amazing when they were active.
“Is that for air?”
“Very good, yes. It’s for air. The fans only run a few hours a day, for that is all they’re needed. We bring it in from above the Blight, above the city. We run pipes and hoses up over the wall’s edge,” he said. “That’s why you can breathe in here. But we do not treat this as a living area. The rooms, kitchens, and wash areas are this way.”
Zeke followed almost eagerly, wanting to see what was next. But he noticed before he was ushered out of the gleaming room with its high ceiling and padded chairs that there was a door at the room’s far end. This door was sealed like the others, but it was also barricaded with iron crossbeams and heavy locks.
Yaozu led Zeke to a platform the size of an outhouse and pulled a low gate shut, then tugged at a handle on a chain. Again the sound of metal unfurling clanked and clicked in some echoing distance.
The platform dropped, not like the broken airship but like a gentle machine with a job to do.
Zeke grabbed the gate and held onto it.
When the platform stopped, Yaozu retracted the gate and put a hand on Zeke’s shoulder, guiding him to the right down a hallway lined with four doors on alternating sides. All of the doors were painted red, and all had a lens as big as a penny built into them—for seeing out or seeing in.
The door on the end opened without being unlocked first, a fact that Zeke noted with some confusion. Was it comforting, the impression that they did not mean to lock him in? Or was it unsettling, for he would have no assurance of privacy?
But the room itself was nicer than any he’d ever visited before, plush with thick blankets on a bed with a fat mattress, and bright from lamps that hung from the ceiling and sat on the tables beside the bed. Curtains hung long and thick from a rod on the far end of the room, which struck Zeke as strange.
He stared at them until Yaozu said, “No, of course there’s no window there. We’re now two floors underground. The doctor just likes the look of curtains. Now. Make yourself comfortable. There’s a washbasin in the corner. Make use of it. I’ll tell the doctor you’re here, and I’m sure he’ll see to your wound himself.”
Zeke washed his face in the basin, which nearly turned the water to sooty mud. When he was as clean as he was going to get, he wandered the room and touched all the pretty things he saw, which took a while. Yaozu was right; there was no window, not even a bricked-up place, on the other side of the curtains. It was merely a bare patch of wall covered in the same wallpaper as everything else.
He checked the doorknob.
It turned easily. The door opened, and Zeke poked his head out into the corridor, where he saw nothing and no one except for a few stray bits of furniture against the wall, and a carpeted runner that flowed the length of the corridor. The lifting and lowering platform was still parked, and its gate was open.
The message was clear: He was free to leave if he could figure out how, and if he wanted to. Or that’s how they wanted it to look, anyway. For all Zeke knew, once he got to the lift an alarm might sound and poisoned arrows might fire from a dozen directions at once.
He doubted it, but he didn’t doubt it enough to try anything.
And then he noticed that Yaozu had taken his mask, and he understood the situation a little bit better.
Zeke sat on the edge of the bed. It felt like something smoother and thicker than a feather mattress, and it bounced under his body when he moved. He was still very thirsty, but he’d dirtied the only water in the room. His head hurt, but he didn’t know what to do about it. He was still hungry, but he didn’t see any food handy, and when it came down to it, he was more exhausted than famished.
He pulled his feet up onto the bed without removing his shoes. He curled his knees up and hugged at the nearest pillow, and he closed his eyes.