As soon as Squiddy was gone, Lucy turned to Briar and said, “Are you ready? ”
“I’m ready,” she promised. “Lead the way.”
In front of her, Lucy was battling her arm to make her mask stay in place. Briar offered, “Can I help you with that?”
“Maybe that’d be a good idea.”
Briar adjusted the other woman’s mask until it settled firmly and buckled behind her ears. She noticed that Lucy had traded the one-hour model she’d sported before for a more substantial mask. “It’s not sticking in your hair or anything, is it?”
“No, baby, it’s fine. And thank you.” She put on a brave smile, straightened her back, and said, “Now it’s time to head up, and out. I might need you to open a door or two, and the path is wide enough that we can walk side by side most of the way, so it would be best if you could stay close to me.”
“How far are we walking here?”
“Not more than a mile, I shouldn’t think—but it’s hard to say when we’ll be climbing stairs and hunkering down hallways. It feels twice as long, I swear.”
And Lucy wasn’t joking. She couldn’t hold a lantern with any steadiness, either, so Briar kept one lit and held up close for the both of them to see. Down a warren of tunnels, seals, and flaps, they came to a place with a crooked stairway and a sealed door. Briar unlatched the thing and climbed up with the light, and she kept an eye on Lucy behind her. The arm’s integrity was failing, and it was becoming more useless by the moment.
Finally, at Lucy’s request, Briar secured the arm as firmly as it could be caught. From that point on she walked in front when the going was tight. In this way, they hopscotched farther and farther south, until they’d come so close to the wall that its shape covered the sky when they emerged onto a new building’s rooftop.
“What was this place?” Briar asked. It didn’t look like the other rooftop vistas she’d seen so far; the floor was covered with plywood patches and the deeply rooted bases of metal poles. Overhead, a system of trapezes suspended walkways that moved at the pull of a handle.
“This place? Oh, I don’t know. I think it was a hotel, once upon a time. Now it’s… well, it’s almost like a train station. I don’t mean that there are any trains, because obviously there aren’t, but—”
“But it’s a junction,” Briar surmised.
She stood back from a nailed-down piece of wood sheeting as big as a wagon and held her lantern aloft so she could better read the message written across it in red paint. It was a list of instructions and pointing arrows, almost like a stationary compass.
“See?” Lucy said, pointing down at it. “We want to go to King Street. That arrow there next to it, that tells you which walkway you need to pull.”
“There, to the right?”
“Uh-huh. Beside it, see? There’s a lever. Give it a good hard tug.”
Briar pulled down hard on a lever that once was a broom handle; it had a green-painted end that matched the arrow pointing to it, which she thought was a nice touch. Somewhere up above, the clanging slide of a slipping chain was accompanied by the brittle protests of rusted metal. A sharp-edged shadow darted overhead and swayed, then settled, and lowered, and behind the shadow came a wood platform coated in pitch.
“It’s not too sticky,” Lucy said before Briar had a chance to ask.
“The tar keeps the wood from falling apart out here in the wet and the Blight; but it gets dusted with sawdust pretty often. Come on up. It’s sturdier than it looks.”
The platform was ringed on all four sides with a gated rail that opened front and back, and it now rested on a track that looked burly enough to support a herd of cattle.
“Go ahead,” Lucy told her. “Get on the lift. It’ll hold us both, and then some.”
Briar took the suggestion and Lucy climbed up behind her, wavering with a lack of balance until Briar steadied her. “We follow along this?”
“That’s right,” she said.
The walkway disappeared into another tangle of platforms, lifts, and other contraptions meant to move people. Eventually it terminated at an interchange, and Lucy pointed out the green arrow aiming at a path that began with four green boards. Her eyes shifted back and forth in her mask and she said, much more quietly, “Don’t look now, but we aren’t alone. Up on the roof, to the right; and down in the window on the left.”
Briar held her head still but followed the verbal directions. Lucy was right. Above them on the next roof over, a masked fellow with a long gun leaned into a corner and watched the women approach. Below them, one seamless glass window was blotched dark with the silhouette of a man with a covered face and a hat, also armed, and also hiding out in the open—not much caring if anyone saw him.
“Guards?” Briar asked.
“Don’t get too nervous about them. We’re coming up the right way, out in the open and plenty loud. They won’t bother us.”
“But they’re watching for newcomers, aren’t they?”
“Newcomers and rotters, and disgruntled clients,” Lucy said.
Briar pointed out, “I’m a newcomer.”
“Sure. But they know me.”
“Maybe I should ask them—,” she started to say.
Lucy interrupted. “Ask them what?”
“Ask them about Zeke. They’re watchmen, aren’t they? Maybe they saw my son while they were watching the streets.”
The barkeep shook her head. “Not yet. Not these men. They won’t talk to you, even if they can. They’re only mercenaries, most of them. And they aren’t friendly. Just leave ’em be.” She lowered her voice again, and marched straight ahead behind Briar.
Briar picked out a third armed man on another nearby rooftop, and then a fourth. She asked, “Are there always this many of them?”
Lucy was looking another direction, for she’d spotted yet a fifth. “Sometimes,” she said, but she sounded unconvinced by her own assessment. “This does seem like a lot for a welcome wagon. I wonder what’s going on.”
Briar didn’t find this particularly reassuring, but she resolutely refused to hold her gun any tighter or walk any faster along the narrow, pipe-and-wood-frame corridors that held her up over the Blight-poisoned streets. “No one’s aiming at us, at least,” she said.
“True enough. Maybe they’ve had some problems. Maybe they’re looking out for somebody else. Honey, could you do me a favor?”
“Stick a little closer by me. This part’s uneven, and it’s hard for me to straighten myself without my arm.”
Briar shifted her shoulder, twitching her satchel and gun until they wouldn’t clap Lucy in the face; then she put one arm around the other woman and helped her walk across the crooked beams. At the end of the way she pulled another lever, and another lift dropped down to meet them.
Lucy said, “This is the last of them. It’ll take us down, into the basement. Can you see the station over there?”
Briar squinted and thought that she might be able to spy a dark point and a circle crossed by two lines through the shifting sheets of curdled air. “Over there?”
“That’s right. That’s the clock tower, there. They’d just got it up when the Blight hit us all. This place right here,” she said as the gear-work mechanisms that held the platform aloft buckled and began to lower, “this was supposed to be a garage where the train cars were stored when no one needed them. It’s been turned into a lobby of sorts.”
“Sure. Think of it as a hotel. It’s pretty nice inside,” Lucy said. “Nicer than the Vaults, anyhow. Even down here, money has plenty to say—and Minnericht’s rich as can be.”
One level at a time, the rickety lift dropped the women. Through the skeleton of the huge, stillborn station their stomachs raced to beat them to the bottom; and at the bottom, the doors opened into more startling bareness—more blank reminders that there were no trains, and no tickets, and no customers. This was a place that had never been brand-new, and now it felt more ancient than the wings of flies trapped in dirty amber.
A puff of dust accompanied the settling of the lift.
Briar sneezed, and Lucy lifted her arm to wipe her nose on her sleeve, but the mask kept her from success. “Come on, dear,” she said. “It’s not much farther, and the deeper we go, the more comfortable the station becomes.”
“How long has he lived here?” Briar asked as she followed Lucy off the lift.
“Oh, I don’t know. Ten years, maybe? He’s had quite a long time to spruce the place up to his liking, that’s for sure.”
They walked across flat stone without any shine or tiling, and their footsteps banged an announcement echo up to the room’s edge. The vast, blank space terminated against a set of red double doors that were sealed with smooth black flaps at all the seams. Briar touched one of the flaps and stared at it more closely. It looked cleaner and more manufactured than the hastily improvised seals of the other quarters.
“How do we get inside? Do we have to knock a special way, or pull a bell?” Briar asked, noting that the door had no external knobs or latches.
Lucy said, “Help me pull the arm out of this sling, will you?”
Briar assisted with the detangling, and then Lucy swung the arm three times against the rightmost door. The sound was sharp and clanging. It was the sound of metal on metal.
“Steel, I think. Someone told me he made them out of a train car’s siding. But someone else told me he yanked them down from the entrance, so I don’t know where he got them, really.”
“And they’re just going to let us inside?”
Lucy shrugged, and her mostly limp arm swung jauntily against her belly. “Rotters don’t knock. Everybody else, they figure they can manage.”
“Wonderful,” Briar mumbled, and soon the jerk and squeal of interior braces revealed that they’d been heard.
The door took half a minute to open, as bars and locks were twisted, lifted, and set aside; and then came the squeal of unhappy hinges as the portal split open. Behind it, a thin man with an oversized mask glared suspiciously out into the area that Lucy had called “the lobby.” An averagely tall fellow, he was dressed like a cowboy in canvas pants, a buttoned-shut shirt, and a pair of gun belts that overlapped one another around his hips. Across his chest another strap held another gun, a larger one like Briar’s Spencer. He was younger than many of the other people she’d seen inside the city walls, but he was not as young as her son. He might’ve been as old as thirty, but it was hard to tell.
“Hello there, Richard,” Lucy said.
If he had a frown or a smile to return the greeting, Briar couldn’t see it through his mask. He said, “Miss Lucy. Something wrong with the arm?”
“That’s right,” she told him.
He gave Briar a frank sort of appraisal and said, “How’d your friend get inside the city?”
Lucy frowned. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Maybe nothing. How’d she get inside?”
“You know, I’m standing right here. You could just ask me,” Briar groused. “Fact is, I dropped down off the Naamah Darling. Captain Cly was kind enough to give me a ride.”
Lucy held very still, like a prey animal afraid it’s been spotted. Then she added slowly, “She’s been here since yesterday. I was going to bring her sooner, but we had trouble with rotters. And anyway, she’s here now.”
Briar had assumed it had been longer, but when she thought about it, she realized she’d only been down in the city for one night and almost two full days. She said, before he could ask, “I’m looking for my son. He would’ve come inside here a couple of days ago. It’s a long story.”
He stared at her without blinking, for a moment too long. “I’ll bet.” After giving her another long look, he said, “I guess you’d better come inside.” He turned his back to lead Briar and Lucy inside and they followed him.
The red double doors sipped a gust of air as they slapped back together.
“This way,” said Richard. He drew them through a narrow room that was only just too wide to be called a hallway. The walls were pocked with gas lamps that looked like they came from ships. They reminded Briar of the lights on the Naamah Darling, and she thought that if she touched them, they might sway on their suspending arms.
They walked together in silence for so long that Briar jumped when Richard spoke again. “I think you’re expected,” he said.
Briar couldn’t decide if this revelation gave her hope or made her feel sick, “I beg your pardon?” she asked, hoping for clarification.
He didn’t offer any. “Miss Lucy, did you bang up your hand hitting on Willard again?”
She laughed, but it sounded more nervous than happy. “No, and that was only once. He’s not very often a problem. Just that one time…” Her voice evaporated, and returned. “No, this was a clot of rotters. We had some trouble at Maynard’s.”
Briar wondered if Richard already knew about the trouble, or if he could have been involved in it. The man didn’t respond, and Lucy didn’t try any more conversation; and before long the stretched-out room ended in a set of curtains made of the same black rubber, but hung as if they were proper drapery.
Richard said, “You can take your masks off now, if you want to. The air’s all right back here.” He pried off his own and stuffed it up under his arm, displaying a broad nose marred with dimpled scars—and a set of hollow cheeks so deep they could’ve stored plums.
Briar helped Lucy first, stashing the barkeep’s mask inside her sling. She pulled her mask off too, and stuck it into her satchel. “I’m ready whenever you are,” she announced.
“Come on, then.” He pushed the flap aside and nearly blinded Briar with the light behind the veil.
“I should’ve warned you,” Lucy said with a squint. “Dr. Minnericht has a thing about light. He loves it, and he likes to make it. He’s been working on making lamps that run on electricity or gas, and not just oil. And this is where he tests them.”
Briar let her eyes adjust and she took a look around. Lamps of all shapes and sizes blazed around the room on pillars and poles. They were strapped to the walls and to each other, and bundled into groups. Some functioned with an obvious power source, and their lemony flames cast a traditional glow; but others broadcast beams made of stranger stuff. Here and there a lamp burned blue and white, or created a greenish halo.
“I’ll go tell him you’re here. Miss Lucy, you and your friend want to wait in the car?”
“Sure,” she said.
“You know the way.”
And he was gone, disappeared around a corner. The open and shut of a door said he was going quite a ways away, so Briar turned to Lucy and said, “What car?”
“He means the old train car. Or one of them in particular. Minnericht cleaned them out, and he puts furniture in them or uses them for storage, or work space. Some of them he turns into little hotel rooms, here under the street.”
Briar asked, “How’d he get the railway cars down under the street? And what were they doing here, since the station wasn’t finished when the walls went up?”
Lucy strolled past a row of candlesticks that were surely waiting to set the place ablaze. She said, “We had trains coming and going before the whole station was done. I think several of the cars dropped down here during the quake. But I couldn’t say for sure. Hell, maybe he dragged them down himself, or paid somebody to do it. Baby, could you get that door for me?”
Briar leaned on a latch, and another set of double doors yawned themselves apart. Beyond them there was nothing but darkness, or so it seemed after the noontime brilliance of the lighting room. But glass-covered torches flickered insistently in the opaque blackness, and warmly glowing sheets of tarnished metal threw dim patches of light against the walls and ceiling.
When Briar lifted her head she saw too much above her, too close.
Lucy saw her looking. “Don’t worry about that. I know it looks like a cave-in, and it is. But it happened ages ago, and it hasn’t moved any farther since. He’s braced it up, and he’s reinforced the cars underneath it.”
“So these cars are buried?”
“Some of them. Here. Look, darling. This is the one where he takes visitors. This is where he lets me meet him, at least. Maybe we do it here because this is where he stores his extra tools—I don’t know. But this is where we’re going.”
She cocked her head toward a door that Briar almost missed, for it was obscured by rubble and dirt. A trestle of railroad ties framed it like an arch, and next to this door there were two others, one on each side.
“The middle one,” Lucy said.
Briar took this as a cue to open the door. It felt like such a fragile thing, after all the heavily braced portals she’d passed through recently. The latch was only a tiny bar that fit in the palm of her hand. She held it softly, for fear of breaking it. It clicked and the door swung out.
She held it open while Lucy let herself inside, where more shimmering lamps illuminated an intimidating array of trinkets, tools, and assorted devices whose function Briar could not begin to guess. The interior seats had been removed, though a handful had been repositioned to line the far wall instead of occupying space in rows. In the center, running lengthwise through the railroad car, a long table was almost totally buried by the bizarre items that were stacked upon it.
“What is all this?” she asked.
“They’re… that’s… it’s tools, that’s all. This is a workshop,” she finished, as if that explained everything.
Briar picked at the edges of the heaps, running her fingers through tubes, pipes, and wrenches in sizes so odd she couldn’t imagine what nuts they might twist. Stacked along the outer edges of the room more equipment had been abandoned or stored, and none of it looked like it could’ve possibly done anything more useful than beep or chime. But there were no clocks, only clock parts and hands; and she saw no weapons, only sharp instruments and bulbs with tiny wires running through them like veins.
The unmistakable slapping rhythm of incoming feet filtered inside, past the slim barrier of the old train’s dented door.
“He’s coming,” Lucy breathed. A look of panic crossed her face, and her malfunctioning arm jerked in her lap. She said quickly, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know if this was the right thing to do, but in case it wasn’t, then I’m so sorry.”
And then the door opened.