Zeke awoke the next morning determined to carry out the leftovers of last night’s plan. He stuffed his pockets with the food he’d gathered (minus a few mouthfuls for breakfast) and wandered back out to the corridor with its lift. The gate was down, but it was easy to move; and once inside the boy had no idea what to do with it. Four levers hung from a wire-frame ceiling overhead, and for all he knew one of them was an alarm.
There must be stairs.
There must be other people, too, or so he was thinking when a peculiarly tall Chinese man and a peculiarly short white man conspired their rushed and distracted way around the corner. They stopped their chattering and quit their brisk pace in order to gaze curiously at Zeke.
“Hey,” he said to the men.
“Hey,” the white man said back. He was a round little fellow, Zeke’s height but three or four times his girth, with a belt that circled his waist like an equator and a military cap squashed down over his overgrown hair. “You the Blue boy?”
“I’m Zeke,” he said, neither confirming nor denying. “Who are you?
They didn’t answer him any better than he’d answered them. “Where you heading off to? There’s rotters upstairs, boy. If you’ve got any brains in your skull, you’ll stick down here, where it’s safe.”
“I wasn’t going nowhere. I was just looking around. The doctor said I could.”
“Did he now?”
“Yeah, he did.”
The thin, tall Chinaman leaned down to see Zeke better, and asked in a rough, hoarse voice, “Where’s Yaozu? Looking after boys, that’s not our job.”
“Is it Yaozu’s job?”
The smaller man said, “Maybe he likes it, being the doctor’s right hand. Maybe he don’t. I couldn’t say, except that he puts up with it.”
Zeke nodded, absorbing the information and filing it away in case it was important. “All right. Well, let me ask you this, then. How do I get upstairs? I’ve seen pretty much all there is to see down here.”
“Didn’t you hear me? Can’t you hear the commotion? Them’s rotters, boy. I can hear them all the way from here.”
The tall man with the thin brown eyes said, “It’s dangerous, next floor up. Doornails and rotters are a bad, bad mix.”
“Come on, fellas,” Zeke wheedled, sensing that he was losing their attention to whatever task they’d been chasing when he’d stopped them. “Help a kid out. I just want to take a look around my new homestead.”
The men shrugged back and forth at one another until the taller of the two walked away, leaving the small man. He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. And don’t go upstairs, if you know what’s good for you. There’s trouble up there. Rotters been coming inside from all over the place, like someone’s deliberately letting ’em in. And there’s other problems, too.”
“Like your pa don’t have many friends outside the station, and sometimes they make a stink. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of that. And I don’t want to be the one who gets blamed for putting you there.”
Zeke said, “If I get up there and get killed, I won’t tell a soul it was you who sent me. Deal?”
The fat man laughed, and squeezed his thumbs into the band of his belt. “You’ve got me there, don’t you? That’s real fine, sure enough. I won’t tell you how to work the lift, because that ain’t my job and I don’t like pulling all them strings; but if you were to follow that hallway behind me, and take it all the way to the left, you’d find a set of stairs down at the end of it. But if anybody asks, I didn’t tell you anything. And if you stick around, then you remember who done you a favor.”
“Thanks!” Zeke said brightly. “And I’ll remember, don’t worry. You’re a champ, man.”
“You said it,” he replied.
By then, Zeke was already headed down the hall at a pace halfway between a jog and a sprint. He found the stairs a moment later, and he crashed up them with a newfound sense of direction. There might be trouble upstairs, but there might also be people with gas masks. It didn’t matter what kind, and it didn’t matter whom he had to sleal it from—Zeke was going to get his hands on one if it killed him.
There was no light in the stairwell, and he couldn’t find any obvious way to illuminate it, but he only needed to scale one flight and he could follow the noise that was rising steadily from above.
It sounded like heavy men running back and forth. Shouts added to the chaos, and as he climbed higher in the dark, stumbling over every other step, an explosion shook the floor.
Zeke flailed and grasped for a rail or a support, but found none. He fell down to his hands and knees.
The last vibrations thudded away and he scrambled to his feet. He dusted off his hands on his pants and felt along the wall until a white line on the floor revealed the bottom of a door with some light behind it. But if there was a handle, he couldn’t find it. As he pressed himself against the door and frantically fought to open it, the commotion outside escalated further, making him wonder if this was really the way he wanted to go.
The unmistakable percussion of gunfire joined the shouting and the running.
Zeke stopped searching for a way out and held still, jarred by the shots and on the verge of changing his mind. It sounded like open warfare up there, in contrast to the calm, rich, quiet surroundings just one floor below. Was this what Lester had been whispering about in Minnericht’s ear?
He hadn’t yet seen a rotter up close. Not a real one, not a hungry one—and certainly not a pack of them.
An irrational burst of curiosity sent him seeking the handle again.
His fingers wrapped around something that could’ve been a lever, set a little higher than an ordinary doorknob. He squeezed it and yanked, and nothing happened. He tugged again, using his weight to pry the thing downward, but the door didn’t budge.
But then it was hit from the other side.
Something big and hard smashed against it, throwing it inward and violently sandwiching Zeke between the panels and the wall. The force of it knocked the wind out of him. He crumpled to the floor holding his injured head, although it was too late to protect it. He gasped, and drew in ragged breaths of air that stunk of gunpowder and Blight residue. The air was sticky against the back of his throat and he gagged—a tiny sound that no one should’ve heard above the clamor on the door’s other side.
Except that someone heard it.
Someone pulled the door aside and looked behind it, discovering the battered, folded form of Zeke trying to keep his head and face covered. This someone cast a very wide shadow; even as Zeke was peering between his fingers, he could see the block of darkness clogging the doorway.
“You there. What are you doing? Get up,” a man said through a device that turned his voice into a mechanical hum. It was as if all his words came filtered through a metal sieve.
“I… um… shut the door, would you?” Zeke was flustered and frightened, and more gunshots were springing from wall to wall, fired from nearby at a terrible volume. He moved his hands and squinted up, peering at the backlit hulk and seeing nothing but a shape that was not human, exactly. It was the shape of a man wearing armor, or a suit made of steel with a mask shaped like an ox’s head.
The man in the mask didn’t speak for a few seconds while the bullets whizzed and clanged, ricocheting off his shoulders. Then he said, “This place ain’t safe for a boy. What are you doing here?” He asked it slowly, like the answer might be very important.
Zeke said, “I’m trying to get out of here! They took my mask, downstairs. I thought—”
His thoughts were cut off by something louder and longer than the mere firing of a revolver sounding through the semibrightness on the other side of the armored man.
“What’s that?” Zeke almost screamed.
The man quavered against the blast behind him; he braced himself against the doorframe, his wide, bulky arms spreading and stretching to hold himself upright. He said, “That’s Dr. Minnericht’s Sonic Gusting Gun. It… it throws sound at people, like a cannon.” For a moment he seemed as if he had more to say about it, but he changed his mind and said, “Out of here’s a good idea. But not this way. You’d better not…” And then he added, “Ezekiel. That’s you, ain’t it?”
“Who are you? And what do you care?”
“I know someone’s who’s looking for you” he said, but the answer wasn’t too comforting. The first face that sprang to Zeke’s mind was the giant who’d piloted the ship that’d crash-landed in the fort.
This man who blocked the way purely with his size could be kin to the pilot, or worse. He could be crew or mercenary, and of all the things Zeke wanted to do, going back to that man with the hands as big as buckets was at the bottom of the queue. He was furthermore concerned that this masked man seemed to know his name, which only made the situation worse: Now the air pirate knew whom he was looking for, and was sending soldiers after him.
“No,” Zeke said, as a general answer to everything that was being asked of him. “No, forget it. Let me go.”
The man shook his head, and the seams on his mask creaked as the metal squeaked against his reinforced shoulders. “You can go, but you can’t come up here. You’ll get yourself killed.”
“I need to get myself a mask!”
“Tell you what” said the man. He looked back over his shoulder and spied something promising. He said, “You stay here, and I’ll go get you one.”
The masked man looked as impassable as a moat, even with all the confidence Zeke could muster. But if the other man was willing to wander off for a few seconds, it’d give the boy time to bolt.
“All right,” he whispered, and nodded his head.
“You’ll stay here, and you won’t move?”
“No, sir, I won’t move,” Zeke assured him.
“Good. I’ll be back in a minute.”
But as soon as the clanking armored man pivoted on his heel, Zeke zipped out behind him and dived into the fringe of the fray.
Too frightened to freeze and too exposed to stand still, he crouched and ran for the closest cover he could find: a stack of crates that were splintering, dissolving by slow degrees as bullets chipped away at their corners. A hot streak of something fast and hard went burning across his back, searing a hole in his shirt.
He struggled to wrangle his arms behind himself so he could touch the stinging line between his shoulder blades, but it was hard to reach and he gave up once he concluded that he was not dead, and not dying. All things being equal, his head still hurt far worse than any other part of him, even his torn-up hand.
Zeke crouched, cornered and horrified by the scene.
Around him, the room had divided into factions. Just like it had sounded below, it was war up there. But contrary to everyone’s explanation, he saw no rotters—no shambling, wheezing undead like the ones he’d heard described. He saw only men, armed and scowling and shooting back and forth across a shining expanse of chipped-up marble that had once been a beautiful floor. On one side were a group of three Chinamen, joined by a pair of men who were dressed like the airmen aboard theClementine. On the other, Zeke saw Lester and a handful of fellows who looked like they’d come from underneath the station.
From the ceiling, a cascade of glimmering lights dripped like formations inside a cave, lending plenty of light to show the horrible events unfolding in all the dusty, cobwebbed corners.
Along the windowless walls there were padded seats and plants made of silk that would never need watering, though they’d need mending from bullet holes. Behind those plants, and crammed under seats, and behind the rows of chairs that were locked together and bolted to the floor in tidy, waiting-room lines, pockets of scowling, grimacing men were doing their best to force their opponents to surrender, or to kill them all outright.
Zeke wasn’t sure where he was. The room looked a bit like the lobby of a train station. And he didn’t know who any of these people except Lester were, or why they were fighting. Some were wearing masks and some weren’t, and at least three of them were dead, sprawled across the shiny-hard surface—two facedown, one faceup. The faceup man was missing most of his throat and his eyes were open, glazed, and staring at nothing but heaven beyond the ceiling.
But one of the facedown men was wearing a mask.
And to Zeke’s total astonishment, the burly, armored fellow who’d confronted him in the corridor was in the process of stripping that mask away. The dead man’s neck wobbled like an empty sock, and with a slip of a final strap, the mask came loose.
The armored man turned around, seeking the corridor entrance and the door behind it. Seeing that the door was open and Zeke wasn’t there anymore, he swore loudly and spun in a circle. A bullet pinged against his shoulder blade with the light chime of a cymbal, but it didn’t seem to harm him any.
He spied Zeke jammed behind the crates.
For a moment, Zeke thought that the man was going to pull that enormous gun down off his back and fire it, and then Zeke would dissolve into a thousand pieces and not even his mother would recognize him.
Instead, the man palmed the mask, wadded it into ball, and chucked it into the boy’s lap before turning around and pulling an oversized six-shooter out of his waistband and firing it again and again and again. He made a line of bullets from one side of the room to the other, creating cover for his own getaway or for Zeke’s—suddenly, Zeke wasn’t sure.
At the far edge of the room there was another door, and something big was beating against it from the outside. Or maybe it wasn’t something big. Maybe it was something many.
It wasn’t one beating bash, like a battering ram or a machine. It was a constant, pounding, pushing, thrusting pressure being forced against the door—which seemed to be strongly reinforced. Even from his own limited perspective, Zeke could see that the door was barricaded as if it expected an army to fling itself against it.
Was this that army?
The door was holding for now, but the armored man was shouting, “Go on, go back downstairs! Find another way out. Ezekiel!” he added, in case his audience wasn’t clearly enough defined. “Get out of here!”
Zeke wrung the mask into a knot and stood to a crouch.
Off to his left, behind a curtain, a man shrieked and flopped to the ground, dragging the curtain down with him. It covered him like a shroud. Around its bottom fringe a puddle of red crept and sprawled across the gray-and-white swirls of the polished floor.