Zeke’s eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the room from corner to corner in search of some other exit. Wasn’t that what the armored man had said? Find another way out? But except for the door that strained against some shoving force on its other side, and the corridor through which the boy had initially come, he didn’t see any other outlets.
The man in the steel suit was out of bullets.
No, only one of his guns was out of bullets. He jammed the empty piece into his belt, against his belly, which was guarded by a metal plate. There was another gun wedged between his belt and his hip; he pulled it out and began a firing retreat.
Zeke counted eight more quarreling, shooting men holed up behind the chairs and around the occasional crates. He assumed that at some point they’d all run out of ammunition and everyone would have to stop. But for the moment, lead crashed in piercing straight lines, splattering like hail driven sideways by the wind.
Zeke wanted out. And the big man’s back was closing in on the corridor—he was trying to flush Zeke back downstairs, and maybe that wasn’t the worst idea in the world, after all.
It was a straight shot across the floor, and he had a big man in a suit of armor drawing all the bad attention away from him. On the other hand, the big man in the suit of armor was no doubt going to follow him downstairs. But here, upstairs, there was nothing but death and confusion.
Zeke decided to take his chances.
He took a leap that became a very short, very low flight from the crates to the middle of the floor—and he finished up his course with a sprinting scramble that sent him headfirst down the stairs on his hands and knees. Fifteen seconds behind him the armored man came backward, more gracefully than Zeke would’ve expected.
He grabbed the door and closed it with the full force of his weight at exactly the moment someone else came slapping against it from the other side.
Zeke tumbled down, tripping and catching himself and falling around the corner until he couldn’t see what was happening above him—he could only hear it. He was back downstairs. It was much quieter there; even the blasts of the guns upstairs were muffled by the ceiling and the stone walls around him.
Back where he’d started from, he felt a sense of failure, until he remembered the mask he clutched like a lifeline.
Minnericht had said Zeke couldn’t have one, and he’d been wrong about that, hadn’t he? Granted, it had come off a corpse, but the boy tried hard not to think about the face that the visor had most recently covered. He tried to take the philosophical view that the other man couldn’t use it anymore, so there was nothing wrong with taking it, and that made sense. But it felt no less disgusting when he smudged his thumb along the inside of the glass and felt the dampness of someone else’s dying breath.
Now that he had a mask, he didn’t know where to go or what to do with it. He wondered if he ought to hide it—maybe stash it in his room and wait for things to settle down—but that didn’t sound right.
At the top of the stairs the armored man was holding his ground, but Zeke had no way of knowing how long that would last.
At the bottom of the stairs, in the corridor with the row of doors and the lift at the end, there was nobody around but Zeke.
Whether this was a good or bad thing, he had no idea. He couldn’t escape the impression that something had gone off the rails, and that the quiet supper he’d so recently escaped had terminated in a terrible situation. The chaos above was swiftly working its way down, held at bay by only one stairwell door that was under a steady assault.
Paralyzed by indecision, Zeke listened as the shots slowed above. The distant sound of beating, banging, and shoving was dim at the edge of his hearing, and it didn’t mean anything pressing. The grunts of the armored man holding the door were stern and determined.
Down at the far end of the hall, the lift began to move with a clustering rattle of chains. Zeke was still holding the contraband mask. He balled it up into a wad and jammed it under his shirt. And lest he be accused of acting sneaky, he called out, “Hello? Is anybody there? Dr. Minnericht? Yaozu?”
“I’m here,” said Yaozu before Zeke could see him.
The Chinaman swept off the lift before it had even settled properly. He was dressed in a long black coat that he hadn’t been wearing the last time Zeke saw him. Aggravation was carved into his face, and when he saw the boy these unhappy lines deepened.
He snapped out one long arm with a billowing sleeve and settled his grip on Zeke’s shoulder. “Go to your room and shut the door. It barricades from within, by a tall bolt. It would take a catapult to knock it down. You’ll be safe there, for a while.”
“What’s going on?”
“Trouble. Secure yourself and wait. It will pass.” He ushered Zeke hastily down the hall, away from the stairwell door and the armored man holding his ground at the top.
“But I don’t want to… to… secure myself.” Zeke looked over his shoulder, wondering about the stairs.
“Life is difficult, isn’t it?” Yaozu said dryly. He stopped at the door to Zeke’s quarters, jerked the boy to face him, and said the rest quickly. “The doctor has many enemies, but they tend to be a fractured lot, and they pose little danger to this small empire under the walls. I do not know why, but these fractured forces have suddenly joined. I suspect it has something to do with you, or with your mother. Either way, they are coming, and they are raising quite a lot of racket.”
“Racket? What’s the racket got to do with anything?”
Yaozu held a finger to his lips and pointed up at the ceiling. Then he murmured, “Do you hear that? Not the guns, and not the shouts. The throbbing. The groaning. Those are not men. Those are rotters. The commotion draws their attention. It suggests to the walking dead that food is nearby.” He said again, “If you wish to survive the night, close your door and leave it closed. I’m not trying to threaten you—only preserve you, as a matter of professional courtesy.”
And then he was gone, heading down the hall and around its sharp bend with his dark coat swirling behind him.
Zeke immediately abandoned his own doorway and trotted back to the stairwell, hoping to learn something new or find it open and the way above it cleared of havoc. For all he knew, the fight may have migrated elsewhere, leaving him alone to explore for a way out.
He could hear more tussling up there, and then a howl that was more of a lion’s roar than a man’s exclamation.
It almost sent him running, but a new noise snagged his attention—and this new noise was less threatening. One part moan and one part gasp, the faint cry was coming from somewhere close, from behind a door that was not quite closed and not quite an open invitation to investigate.
He investigated anyway.
He pushed at the door and discovered a small kitchen that looked nothing like a kitchen. But what other room might have such bowls, lights, stoves, and pans?
Inside, the room was too warm from the cooking fires. Zeke squinted against the heat and listened, and he heard the distressed panting once more, from underneath a table that was half covered with a burlap cloth that had once been a sack. He drew the cloth aside and said, “Hey. Hey, what are you doing here? Hey, are you all right?” Because Alistair Mayhem Osterude was cowering there, curled in a fetal shape with pupils so ghastly and large that they seemed to see nothing, or everything in the whole world.
He was drooling, and around his mouth he sported a series of fresh sores that looked something like a line of bubbling burns. With every exhalation, he wheezed. It was the sound of a violin string being scratched slowly lengthwise. “Rudy?”
Rudy slapped at Zeke’s outstretched hand, then retracted his arm and clawed at his face. He mumbled a word that might have been, “Don’t,” or “No,” or another short syllable that expressed resistance.
“Rudy, I thought you were dead. When the tower got busted, I thought you’d done died at the bottom someplace.” He did not add that Rudy looked half-dead now. He couldn’t think of a good way to work it in.
The closer he looked, the more certain he was that Rudy had been hurt badly—not badly enough to kill him, maybe, but badly all the same. The back of his neck was scraped and bruised, and his right arm was hanging funny. His shoulder had bled itself so extensively that his whole sleeve was damp and crimson. His cane was fractured; a long crack had opened up along one side. It didn’t look like it worked anymore, not as something to lean on and not as something to shoot with. Rudy had dropped it off to the side, and was ignoring it.
“Rudy,” Zeke asked, tapping his knuckle against a bottle tucked against the man’s chest. “What’s that? Rudy?”
His breathing had gone from shallow and noisy to almost imperceptible. The wide black pupils that stared at nothing and everything all at once began to shrink until they had turned to pinpoints. A dull twitching made Rudy’s stomach jiggle, then worked its way up his torso until his throat was rattling and his head was shaking. Spittle splattered against the underside of the table, and against Zeke’s shirtsleeves.
The boy backed away. “Rudy, what’s happening to you?” Rudy didn’t answer.
Someone else did, from the doorway. “He’s dying. Just like he wants.”
Zeke whipped around and stood so fast that he clipped his shoulder on the edge of the table. It smarted. He held it. He griped, “Dammit, Miss Angeline, couldn’t you knock or something? I swear to God, nobody ever knocks around here.”
“Why should I?” she asked, entering the room and lowering herself into a crouch that made her knees pop loudly. “You weren’t going to get all surprised and shoot me, and he’s too far gone to even know I’m here.”
Zeke joined her, copying her position—hanging onto the table’s edge and ducking his head to see underneath it. “We should do something,” he said weakly.
“Like what? Like help him? Boy, he’s so far beyond help that even if I wanted to, there’s nothing to be done for him. Hell. The kindest thing we could do is shoot him in the head.”
“Don’t look at me like that. If he were a dog, you wouldn’t let him suffer. Thing is, he ain’t a dog, and I don’t mind him suffering. You know what’s in that bottle? The one he’s holding there, like it’s his own baby?”
“What is it?” He reached for it and dislodged it from Rudy’s slipping grasp.
The liquid inside the scratched glass bottle was runny and not quite clear. It had a yellowish-green tint to it, and it smelled a little bit like the sour odor of Blight, and a little bit like salt, and maybe kerosene.
“Jesus only knows. This is a chemist’s lab, where they tinker with the nasty stuff and try to make it drinkable, or smokable, or sniffa-ble. The Blight’s a bad, bad thing, and it’s hard to turn it into something people can stand. Rudy here, this old deserter, he’s been stuck on it for years. I tried to tell you, back at the underground tunnel. I tried to get it through your head that he was only taking you back here because he thought Minnericht might reward him for it. This miserable poison was bound to kill him one day, and I think today will be that day.” She frowned at the bottle, and frowned at the man on the floor.
“We should help him,” Zeke said, protesting the man’s death as a matter of formality.
“You want to shoot him after all?”
“Me either. I don’t think he deserves it. He deserves to feel the pain, and die from it. He’s done some mighty nasty things in his time to get that stinking drink, or paste, or powder. Leave him alone. Cover him up if you think that’s polite. He’s not coming back from this one.”
She stood up, tapped the top of the table, and said, “I bet he didn’t even know what that stuff was. He probably just wandered in here, looking to get all sloppy from his drug of choice, and started sucking down the first thing he found.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Yeah, that’s what I think. Alistair never had a drop of brains to spare, and what little he started out with got burned away by the sap.”
Zeke stood up too, and he pulled the burlap cloth over the spot where the vibrations from Rudy’s head were tapping a gruesome hum against the floorboards. He couldn’t stand looking. He asked Angeline, “What are you doing here?” partly because he wanted to know, and partly because he felt the need to talk about something else.
“I told you I was going to kill him, didn’t I?”
“I didn’t think you were serious!”
She asked, with what appeared to be honest confusion, “Why not? He’s not the first man I’d like to kill down here, but I was willing to work him onto the list.”
Before Angeline could speak again, Zeke noticed that the crashing upstairs was gradually fading to a sporadic, angry rumble. He no longer heard the thrashing against the door back down the hall, not even faintly. He said in a gasp, “The stairs. There was a man on the stairs.”
“Jeremiah, yes. That’s right. Big fellow, wide as a brick wall. Wearing a bunch of gear.”
“That’s him. Is he… all right?” Zeke asked.
The princess understood what he meant. “He’s got his faults, like all men, but he’s here to help.”
“Help who? Help me? Help you?” Zeke recoiled and jerked his head out the doorway, looking left and right. “Where’d he go?”
Angeline joined him at the doorway, then stepped past him into the hall. “I think he’s here to help your mother,” she said. “She’s down here in the station someplace. Jeremiah!” she called out.
“Don’t yell!” Zeke tried to hush her. “And he’s here for my mom? I thought nobody knew where she was!”
“Why’d you think that? Is that what Minnericht told you? Don’t you remember what I told you, you dumb boy? I told you he’s a lying snake. Your mother’s been down here a day or two, and Jeremiah’s here now because he’s afraid the doctor’s done her some kind of mischief. Jeremiah!” she hollered again.
Zeke took Angeline’s arm and shook her. “She’s here? All this time she’s been down here?”
“She’s here somewhere. She was supposed to be back at the Vaults by morning, but she didn’t come back, so now the Doornails have all come spilling into the station, looking for her. I don’t think they mean to leave without her, either.” And once more she shouted, “Jeremiah!”
Zeke told her, “Don’t! Stop shouting like that! You’ve got to quit shouting!”
“How else am I going to find him? It’s all right. There ain’t nobody else down here anyhow, at least not that I could find.”
“Yaozu was here, a few minutes ago,” Zeke argued. “I saw him.”
Angeline stared at him hard. “Don’t you lie to me now, boy. I saw that evil Chinaman upstairs. He ran down here, did he? If he ran down here, then I need to know which way he went.”
“That way.” Zeke indicated the bend in the corridor hall. “And off to the right.”
“How long ago?”
“A few minutes,” he repeated, and before she could dash away, he clutched her arm and asked, “Where would he have put my mother?”
“I don’t know, child, and I don’t have time to figure it out. I’ve got to follow that murdering old bastard.”
“Make the time!” Zeke did not quite shout, but the words carried some force to them, in a tone that he’d never heard himself use. Then, more quietly and with more control, he let go of her arm and said, “You told me everything Minnericht ever said was a lie. Well, he told me my mother came into the city, chasing after me. Is that true?”
She drew her arm back down to her side and gave him a look he couldn’t read. She said, “That’s true. She came here looking for you. Minnericht lured her here, with Lucy O’Gunning. Lucy got clear of the station yesterday and went back to the Vaults to round up help.”
“Help. Lucy. Vaults,” he repeated the words that sounded important, though they didn’t mean much to him. “Who’s—”
Angeline’s patience was running out. She said, “Lucy’s a one-armed woman. If you see her, tell her who you are and she’ll do her best to get you out of here.”
She took a step away from him and started to run, as if she was finished talking.
Zeke grabbed her arm again and pulled her back, hard.
Angeline didn’t like it. She let him yank her into his personal space, but she brought a blade with her and she held it up against his stomach. It wasn’t a threat, not yet. It was only an observation, and a warning. She said, “Get your hand off me.”
He let her go, just like she told him to, and then he asked, “Where would he have put my mother?”
She gave the bend in the corridor a nervous glance and Zeke an aggravated one. “I don’t know where your mother is. But I’m guessing he’s just stashed her someplace. Maybe one of these rooms, maybe downstairs. I’ve been sneaking around in here before, once or twice, but I don’t know this place like the back of my hand or nothing. If you find Jeremiah again, stay with him. He’s a monster of a man, but he’ll keep you in one piece if you let him.”
Zeke figured that was all he was going to get, so he started to run; behind him, he heard the swift patter of Angeline’s feet dashing away in the other direction.
He ran to the first door across the hall and whipped it open.
There was only a bed and a basin, and a chest of drawers—much like the quarters he’d been given, though not quite as clean or posh. Something about the smell of dust and linen made him think no one had used it in a very long time. He exited the room, calling for Angeline before he remembered that she had taken off without him. Even her footsteps had left him, and he was alone in the corridor with all the doors.
But now he knew what to do.
He reached for the next door and it was locked.
Back in the chemist’s room, Rudy wasn’t breathing anymore—or maybe he was, but it was so light and frail that Zeke couldn’t hear it when he tiptoed over to the table. Without looking under the burlap covering, the boy kicked his feet around and found the cracked cane.
It was heavy in his hands. Even with the long, gaping crack in the side it felt solid.
He ran back out to the locked door, and he beat the knob with the sharp, heavy cane until the hardware broke and the door smashed inward.
Zeke shoved his way past the broken door and charged wildly into a room that was packed with junk. None of it looked important; all of it looked old; some of it looked dangerous. One box was missing a lid. Inside were pieces of guns, cylinders, and spools of wire. The next-nearest open crate was crammed with sawdust and glass tubes.
He couldn’t see any farther back than that. There wasn’t enough light.
“Mother?” he tried, but he already knew she wasn’t there. No one was there, and no one had been there in a while. “Mother?” he asked once more just in case. No one answered.
The next door was open, and behind it Zeke found another laboratory, crammed with tables shoved closely together and lights on hinges that could be adjusted for better illumination. He called out,
“Mother?” as a matter of general principle, received no answer, and moved on.
He whipped himself around and stopped with his nose half an inch from the metal-covered chest of the man whom Angeline had called Jeremiah. How Jeremiah had been able to move so quietly in so much armor Zeke had no idea, but there he was, and there was Zeke, breathless and driven by his first real direction in days. He blurted, “Get out of my way—I have to find my mother!”
“I’m trying to help, you stupid kid. I knew it was you,” he added as he took a step back, letting Zeke escape the laboratory and step back into the hall. “I knew it had to be you.”
“Congratulations. You were right,” Zeke said.
There was only one unopened door left. He started toward it, but Jeremiah stopped him. “It’s a storage closet. He wouldn’t be keeping her there. My guess is, he took her down one more level, where his living quarters are” he said.
“These aren’t the living quarters?”
“No. These are the guest quarters.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Yeah, I’ve been here before. Where do you think I got this gear? Get on the lift.”
“You know how to work it?”
Jeremiah didn’t respond except to stomp up to the platform and jerk the gate aside. He held it open for Zeke, who had to run to keep up; the lift was dropping before the boy could land both feet inside it.
While the lift shook and descended, Zeke asked, “What’s going on? No one will tell me what’s going on.”
“What’s going on”—Jeremiah reached up to tug on a lever that must’ve been a brake—“is that we’ve had it up to here with that goddamned deranged doctor.”
“But why? Why now?”
Jeremiah shook his head crankily. “Now’s as good a time as any, ain’t it? We’ve let him treat us like dogs for years, and we’ve taken it, and taken it, and taken it. But now he’s taken Maynard’s girl, and there’s not a Doornail or scrapper down here who’ll stand for that kind of horseshit.”
Zeke felt a surge of real relief, and real gratitude, on top of it. “You really are here to help my mom?”
“She was only down here trying to find you. He could’ve left her out of it, and left you both alone. Obviously,” he said, leaning his weight on the lever and drawing the lift to a stop, “he didn’t. Neither of you ought to be here, but you are. And that’s not right.”
He shoved the gate aside with such force that it broke and dangled.
Zeke kicked his way past it and into yet another hallway lined with carpets, lights, and doors. He could smell a fire burning somewhere. There was a warm and homey scent around its edges, like the burning of hickory logs in a fireplace.
“Where are we? What is this? Mother? Mother, are you down here? Can you hear me?”
Upstairs, something awful happened in one crashing, crushing blast that made Zeke think of the tower when it’d been smashed by the Clementine. He felt that same shuddering immediacy, and being down underneath the world only made the fear worse. The ceiling cracked above him, and the dust of crawlspaces and riggings rained down.
“What was that?” Zeke demanded.
“How the hell would I know?”
A growling roar hummed upstairs in the wake of the explosion, and even Zeke—who had been thinking it’d be a shame if he left the city without ever seeing a rotter—could guess what the sound was.
“Rotters.” Jeremiah said. “A lot of them. I thought the downstairs was better reinforced than this. I thought that was the point of all these levels. I guess Minnericht doesn’t know everything after all, eh? I’d better get upstairs and hold them.”
“You’re going to hold them off? By yourself?”
“Some of Minnericht’s boys might join in; they don’t want to wind up rotter shit any more than I do, and most of ’em are only here because they’re paid to be. By the way, if you hear a big boom in a few minutes, don’t get too worked up about it.”
“What does that mean?” Zeke demanded.
Jeremiah was already back on the lift, thumbing through the levers in search of the right one. He said, “Stay here and look for your mother. She might need help.”
Zeke ran to the edge of the lift and asked, “And then what do I do? Where do we go, when I find her?”
“Up,” the armored man said. “And out—however you can. Things are going to get worse down here before they get better. The rotters moved faster than our boys thought they would. Go back to the Vaults, maybe—or go to the tower and wait for the next ship.”
And then the lift jerked, and lurched, and carried Jeremiah up into the ceiling until even the tips of his toes were gone. Zeke was alone again.
But there were more doors to open, and his mother was missing, so at least he had something to take his mind off the commotion upstairs. The door at the end of the room was open, and since that door represented the path of least resistance—or fastest access—the boy barreled towards it and shoved it inward.
Here was the source of the smoke smell: a brick fireplace with smoldering logs turning the room a golden orange. A blocky black desk squatted in the middle of the floor, atop an Oriental rug with dragons embroidered into the corners. Behind the desk was a fat leather chair with an overstuffed seat, and in front of the desk were two other chairs. Zeke had never been in anybody’s office before and he didn’t know what the point of it might be; but it was a beautiful room, and warm. If it had a bed, it would be a perfect place to live.
Because no one was looking, he walked around the far side of the desk and opened its top drawer. Inside he found papers written in a language he didn’t understand. The second drawer—a deeper one, with a lock that wasn’t fastened—held something more interesting.
At first he thought it was his imagination that the satchel looked familiar. He wanted to believe he’d seen it before, on his mother’s shoulder, but he couldn’t be certain at a glance, so he opened it and jammed his hands inside. His swift rummaging revealed ammunition, goggles, and a mask, none of which he’d ever seen before. And then he found the badge with its ragged MW initials and his mother’s tobacco pouch, untouched for days, and he knew that nothing in the bag belonged to the doctor.
He reached down and scooped it up. When he bent to shove the drawer shut, he saw a rifle stashed under the desk, where it couldn’t be seen except from behind the tall-backed chair where Zeke probably wasn’t supposed to sit.
He snatched the rifle, too.
The room was empty and quiet, except for the flickering chatter of the fireplace. Zeke left it that way and charged back into the hall with his treasures.
There was a door across the way, but Zeke couldn’t open it. He beat against it with Rudy’s warped cane, but when the knob broke it simply fell off, and whatever braced the other side held firm. He flung his weight against it enough times to bruise his shoulder. Nothing budged. But there were other doors to be opened, and he could come back to that one if it came down to it.
The next one across the hall opened into an empty bedroom. And the one next door to it failed to open at all, until Zeke bashed the knob into fragments with the butt end of the cane. The lock tried to hold, but the boy could kick like a mule—and within half a minute the frame splintered, and the door opened violently.