home   |   À-ß   |   A-Z   |   ìåíþ


Twenty-six

Briar dreamed of earthquakes and machines so huge that they mowed down cities. Somewhere, at the edge of the things she could hear, she detected the sound of gunfire and something else—or maybe nothing else, because whatever it was, it didn’t come again. Somewhere else it was soft and the lights were turned down low, and the bed was deep enough to cradle a family of four.

It smelled like dust and kerosene, and old flowers dried and left in a vase beside a basin.

Levi was there. He asked her, “You never did tell him, did you?”

From the bed, where her eyes were so heavy she could hardly hold them open, Briar said, “I never told him anything. But I will, as soon as I can.”

“Really?” He did not look convinced; he looked amused.

He was wearing the thick linen apron he often wore in the laboratory workshop, and it was covered by a light coat that went down to his knees. His boots were unlaced, as usual, as if it never occurred to him to fix them. Around his forehead a set of conjoined monocles was strapped, wearing a groove into the skin that never fully went away.

She was too tired to object when he came to sit on the edge of the bed. He looked exactly how she last remembered him, and he was smiling, as if everything was all right and nothing had ever been wrong. She told him, “Really. I’m going to tell him, no matter what it costs me. I’m tired of keeping all these secrets. I can’t keep them all anymore. And I won’t.”

“You won’t?” He reached for her hand, but she didn’t let him take it.

She rolled over onto her side, facing away from him and clutching at her stomach. “What do you want?” she asked him. “What are you even doing here?”

He said, “Dreaming, I think. Same as you. Look, my love. We meet here—if nowhere else.”

“Then this is a dream,” she said, and a sick feeling spread through her stomach like acid. “For a minute I thought it wasn’t.”

“It might be the only thing you ever did right,” he said, moving neither toward nor away from her. His weight on the edge of the bed bowed the mattress and made her feel as if she were rolling or falling into his space.

“What? Not telling him?”

“If you had, you might’ve lost him before now.”

“I haven’t lost him,” she said. “I just can’t find him.”

Levi shook his head. She could feel the motion of it, though she couldn’t see him. “He’s found what he wanted, and you’ll never get him home again. He wanted facts. He wanted a father.”

“You’re dead,” she told him, as if he did not know.

“You won’t convince him of it.”

She crushed her eyes closed and buried her head in the pillow, which almost wanted to smother her with its musty, warm odor. “I won’t have to convince him, if I show him.”

“You’re a fool. The same fool you always were.”

She said, “Better a live fool than a dead—”

“Mother,” he said.

She opened her eyes. “What?”

“Mother.”

She heard it again. She turned her neck to pull her face away from the pillow, and lifted her head. “What are you talking about?”

“Mother, it’s me.”

It felt like shooting through a tunnel, the speed and ragged jolt with which she awoke. She was being dragged from warm darkness and into something colder, fiercer, and infinitely less comfortable. But there was a voice at the end of it, and she crawled toward it, or slid toward it, or fell up as she tried to reach it.

“Mother? Oh shit, Mother. Mother? Come on, wake up. You’ve got to wake up, ’cause I sure can’t carry you, and I want to get out of here.”

She rolled over onto her back and tried to open her eyes, then realized that they were already open but she couldn’t quite see. All the world was blurry, though light did flicker off to her right, and above her there loomed a distinctly dark shadow.

The shadow was saying, over and over again, “Mother?”

And the earthquake in her dreams was rumbling still, or maybe he was only shaking her. The shadow’s hands gripped her shoulders and hurled them back and forth until her head snapped on her neck, and she declared, “Ow.”

“Mother?”

“Ow,” she said again. “Stop it. Stop what you’re doing, that… Stop it.”

The brighter her vision became, the more aggressively it was accompanied by a burning sting, and a dampness that drooled over her cheekbone. She touched the sore spot with her hand, and when she drew it back, it was wet.

“Am I bleeding?” she asked the shadow. Then she said, “Zeke, am I bleeding?”

“Not real bad,” he said. “Not even as bad as I was. Mostly you’re just bruised up. You got blood all over the pillowcase, but it ain’t ours, so I don’t care. Come on. Stand up. Get up. Come on.”

He wedged his arm underneath her back and hauled her bodily off the bed, which was every bit as soft as her dream suggested. The room was the same too, so she must’ve been awake enough—in fragments—to gather her surroundings. But she was alone except for the boy, who dragged her to her feet and forced her to stand.

Her knees buckled, then locked. She stood, leaning on Zeke. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, Zeke. Hey, it’s you. It is you, isn’t it? Because I was having the weirdest dream.”

“It’s me, you crazy old bird,” he said with affection and a grunt. “What are you doing in here, anyway? What were you thinking, coming inside this place? ”

“Me? Wait.” As much as it made the sore spot on her head swim, she shook her head and tried to make it clear enough to object. “Wait, you’re stealing all the things I was going to say.” Slowly, then suddenly, the understanding landed. She said, “You. It’s you, you dumb boy. You’re what I’m doing here.”

“I love you too, Momma,” he said around a smile so big he could hardly shape the words.

“I found you, though, didn’t I?”

“I might argue that I found you, but we can fight about it later.”

“But I came looking for you.”

“I know. We can fight about it later. First, we need to head on out of here. The princess is waiting for us. Somewhere. I think. We ought to go find her, and that Jeremiah guy.”

“The what? Or the who?” The warbling throb around her ear kicked hard, and she wondered if maybe she hadn’t been wrong about her state, and maybe she was dreaming again after all.

“The princess. Miss Angeline. She’s real helpful. You’ll like her. She’s real smart.” He released his grip on Briar and left her to stand by herself.

She wavered, but held steady. She said, “My gun. Where’s my gun? I need it. I had a bag, too. I had… some things. Where are they? Did he take them?”

“Yeah, he took ’em. But I took ’em back.” He held out the rifle and the satchel and all but shoved them into her hands. “You’ll have to work that thing, because I can’t shoot it.”

“I never taught you how.”

“You can teach me later. Let’s go,” he ordered, and Briar wanted to laugh but she didn’t.

She liked the look of him, even frantic and controlling—even leading her like a child while she came all the way to her senses. Someone had given him nice clothes and maybe a bath. “You clean up nice,” she said.

He said, “I know. How you feeling? Are you all right?”

“I’ll survive,” she told him.

“Good. You’d better. You’re pretty much all I got, ain’t you?”

“Where are we?” she asked, since he seemed to have a better handle on the situation than she did. “Are we… under the station? Where did that bastard put me while I was out?”

“We’re under the station,” Zeke said. “You’re two levels down from the big room with all the lights on the ceiling.”

“There’s another level underneath?”

“At least one, maybe more. This place is a maze, Momma. You wouldn’t believe it.” He stopped her at the door and opened it fast, then looked left and right outside down the hall. He held out his hand and said, “Wait. Do you hear that?”

“What?” she asked. She came to his side and let him listen and squint while she checked the rifle. It was still loaded, and inside the satchel all her belongings seemed to be in place. “I don’t hear anything.”

He listened longer and then said, “Maybe you’re right. I thought I heard something, but I’ve been wrong before. There’s a lift at the end of the hall, over there. You see it?”

She leaned her head around the door and said, “Yes. That’s it, right?”

“Right. We’re going to run for it. We’ve got to; otherwise Yaozu is going to catch us, and we don’t want that.”

“We don’t?” Briar didn’t mean to make it sound like a question, but she was still pulling herself together, and for the moment, it was the easiest way to participate in the conversation. Besides, she was so happy to see him that all she wanted to do was touch him and talk to him.

Off in the distance, she heard gunfire. It was a large crack and loud, the sound of a rifle, not a revolver. More shots answered it, bullets from a smaller gun with a faster firing rate.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“Long story,” he said.

“Where are we going?”

He took her hand and pulled her into the hallway. “To the Smith Tower—the big one where they dock the dirigibles.”

A memory flickered as her footsteps followed his in a furious patter. “But it’s not Tuesday yet, is it? It can’t be. We can’t get out that way—I don’t think it’s a good idea. We should head back down to the Vaults.”

“But we can get out that way, at the tower,” he swore. “Jeremiah said there’s ships there.”

She tore her arm away from his as they reached the lift. The iron grate covered the same lift as the one she’d taken from the top side; she pulled it over and pushed Zeke onto the platform. As she joined him and closed the gate, she said, “No. I’ve got to go see Lucy. I need to find out if she’s all right. And—”

More shots exploded, somewhere closer.

“And something bad is happening up there.” She pulled the Spencer around and held it in position as the lift rose to the next level. “We should get off here. Let’s avoid as much of it as we can.”

“It’s probably just rotters,” Zeke said, and tried to keep her on the lift as she stubbornly hauled the gate aside. “But we can’t leave yet. The princess might be up there!”

“Well, she isn’t.”

Briar swung the Spencer around and pointed it at a smallish woman with skinny limbs and long gray hair that was braided into a rope. She looked native, though Briar couldn’t have guessed which tribe; and she was wearing a man’s blue suit with a tailored coat and pants that were too big for her.

The woman was holding her side. Blood squished out from between her fingers.

“Miss Angeline!” Zeke ran to her.

Briar lowered the Spencer, then changed her mind and held it out, ready for any trouble that might come from some other direction. After all, they were in the midst of a large room with several doors, all of them closed. There was nothing to mark this room as different from any other, or as having any particular purpose. It was mostly empty, except for a stack of tables against one wall and a clump of broken chairs that were piled on top of one another and left to collect dust.

“Ma’am,” she asked over her shoulder. “Ma’am, do you need some help?”

The reply came without a drop of patience in it. “No. And don’t touch me, boy.”

“You’ve been stabbed!”

“I’ve been scratched, and it’s ruined my new suit. Hey,” she said to Briar, tapping her on the shoulder with a bony linger. “If you see a bald-headed Chinaman in a black coat, you shoot him between the eyes for me. That would make me happy,” she fussed.

“I’ll keep a lookout for him,” Briar promised. “Are you the princess?”

“I’m a princess. And I’m mad as hell right now, but we’ve got to get out. If we stay here, they’ll catch us.”

“We’re on our way back to the Vaults,” Briar said. “Or the tower!” Zeke insisted.

Angeline said, “Either one of those would work, but you might want to head to the fort instead. When the Naamah Darling’s fixed, you can get old Cly to take you out, if you’re looking to leave.”

Briar frowned. “Cly’s here? At the fort?”

“He’s making repairs.”

More commotion upstairs told Briar that she’d have to ask about it later.

Zeke asked, “Wait. We’re going back to that ship? With that big old captain? No; no way. I don’t like him.”

“Cly?” Briar asked. “He’s good. He’ll get us out of here, don’t worry.”

Zeke said, “How do you know?”

“He owes us a favor. Or he thinks he does, anyhow.”

Around the bend something fell and broke, and on the other side of the walls, the trundling waves of heavy, rotting feet were beating a gruesome time. “This is bad,” Briar observed.

“Worse than that, probably,” said Angeline, though she didn’t sound too upset. She pulled a big-barreled shotgun out of a quiver she wore on her back, and checked it to make sure it was loaded. The injury in her side oozed, but did not gush when she let go of it.

“You know your way around here?” Briar asked her.

“Better than you folks do,” she said. “But not by much. I can find my way in and out, and that’s about it.”

“Can you take us out to the Vaults?”

“Yes, but I still think you should head for the fort,” she groused, and pushed Zeke so he wouldn’t help her walk. “Get off me, boy. I’m walking all right. It stings a little, but it won’t be the end of me.”

“Good,” Briar said. “Because we’ve got problems.”

From inside the lift, a mournful groan came echoing. Pounding hands beat at the roof above, or from some other spot around the lift’s basket. Then there was a splintering, breaking smash… and they came tumbling inside. One or two blazed the trail, and then they poured in greater numbers through whatever passage they’d forced.

The first three rotters off the lift and into the corridor were once a soldier, a barber, and a Chinaman. Briar pumped the rifle and aimed it fast, catching the first two in the eyes and blowing off the third one’s ear.

“Mother!” Zeke shouted.

“Behind me, both of you!” she commanded, but Angeline wasn’t having any of it and she used her own shotgun to take down the third.

Scrambling hungrily over those three bodies came another round of rotters, half a dozen bodies wide and at least that deep.

“Back!” Angeline cried. “Back, this way!” she said, even as she continued shooting.

The noise in the corridor was deafening, and both Zeke and Briar had heads that were already throbbing. But it was either shoot and aim high or sit down and die; so the women kept firing as Zeke blazed a backward path around the bend, acting as scout and lookout while he tried to follow Angeline’s directions.

“To your right! I mean, to your other right,” she corrected herself. “There ought to be a door there, at the end of the way. Beside the office!”

“It’s locked!” Zeke shouted. The second word was drowned out by the calamity of his mother’s Spencer, but Angeline got the general idea.

She said, “Cover me, just a second.”

Before Briar had time to do anything but comply, Angeline turned around and shoved Zeke out of her way. She unloaded her shotgun’s second barrel into the lock and the door flapped inward, shattering on its hinges.

“It’s a back exit,” the princess explained. “He tells people it’s a dead end, but it’s his own personal escape hatch, the bastard.”

Zeke kicked the door’s fallen shards aside and wished they had something to close behind them, but it wasn’t going to work out that way and he didn’t have time to complain. He tried to let the women clamber up first, but he was unarmed and no one would let him.

His mother took him by the crook of his neck where it met his shoulder and half threw him into the corridor, then almost tripped over him backward with her next shot. Angeline told him, “Get a move on!” and reloaded as she retreated. The hallway was dark and crowded, but Zeke could see stairs going up one direction and down another.

“Which way?” Zeke asked, perching at the edge of the platform where the steps swapped angles.

“Up, for Christ’s sake,” Angeline swore loudly and cocked her shotgun again. “We’re cutting past the main trouble, and if we go down they’ll trap us there. We’ve got to try up and out, if we want to survive.”

Briar breathed, “We can’t keep this up,” and fired her last shot from within the doorway.

She knocked down the foremost rotter with a bullet; its forehead blistered and popped as it fell. That cleared perhaps ten yards between the surge of decomposing flesh and the narrow bottleneck of the emergency escape hall.

“Up, all right. Up,” Zeke wheezed as he started to climb.

“There’s another door on the first floor up. It’s dark. Feel around. You’ll find it. It should be unlocked; it usually is. I hope it is.” Angeline gave instructions from some black-blanketed corner where Zeke couldn’t see her. As soon as they’d rounded the bottom bend and begun their ascent, the stairwell had become perfectly dark. Arms, elbows, and the burning-hot barrels of guns knocked against shoulders and ribs as the three tried to beat a retreat back up into the mere ordinary chaos of the living.

“I found the door!” Zeke announced. He yanked on it, and almost flopped past it when it opened. Briar and the princess squeezed out behind him, then slammed the door. A brace as big around as Briar’s head was leaning helpfully against the wall, and together they shoved it up under the latch to hold it.

When the horde of starving rotters crashed against it, the door jolted, but held. The brace strained and scooted slightly against the floor, but Angeline kicked it into place and stared at it, daring it to move.

“How long will that hold?” Zeke asked. No one answered him.

Briar said, “Where are we, Princess? I don’t recognize this place.”

“Put your mask on,” Angeline said in response. “You’re going to need it soon. Boy, that goes for you too. Put it on. We’re going to make a run for the topside, but it won’t help us any if you can’t breathe.”

Briar’s satchel wasn’t settled on her shoulder the way she liked it; she’d grabbed it in such a hurry that there hadn’t been time to adjust it. She did so then, lodging it into the familiar groove across her torso. She retrieved her mask and wormed her head up into the straps, watching while Zeke did the same. She said, “Where’d you get that? That’s not the mask you left home with.”

He said, “Jeremiah gave it to me.”

“Swakhammer?” Briar said. “What’s he doing here?” she asked no one in particular, but Angeline answered.

“You took too long getting back to the Vaults. Lucy went down there and grabbed your friends, and then all hell broke loose.” She took a deep breath that sounded like it hurt, like her lungs were snagged on something sharp. When Briar looked down at the woman’s side, she could see that the bleeding there was fresh.

“They came after me? To rescue me?”

“Sure, to rescue you. Or to start the war they’ve wanted for years. I’m not saying they don’t mean to help you, because they surely do—but I will say that they’ve needed an excuse to rise up like this, and you’re the best one they ever got.”

Above, a rickety string of rope was knotted around hanging lights powered by no source that Briar could see. But twisted together with the rope she could see metallic veins, wires woven together and transmitting whatever energy it took to illuminate them. They weren’t bright, but they showed the way well enough to keep them from stubbing toes or shooting one another from surprise. Large tarps covered things shaped like monstrous machines that had been pushed into corners, and stacks of crates were piled along the edges of the room, which was low-ceilinged, damp, and chilly.

“What is this place?” she asked.

Angeline said, “Storage. Extra things. Things he stole, and things he’ll use later, someday, if he gets the chance. If we had the time or wherewithal, I’d say we ought to set fire to this place behind us. There’s nothing here but things designed to maim and kill.”

“Like those chemist’s labs, downstairs,” Briar murmured.

“No, not like those. These are things he can sell to a different market, if he can work out how they operate. They’re leftovers from the big contest the Russians held, looking for a mining machine that could dig through ice and lift out gold. He’ll be a rich, rich man if the war goes on any longer.”

Zeke said, “He’s already a rich man, ain’t he?”

“Not as rich as he’d like to be. They never are, are they, Miss Wilkes? Now he’s turning these things into war machines, since they weren’t much use as drilling machines. He wants to sell them back east, to the highest bidder.”

Briar was only half listening. She’d picked up the corner of the nearest tarp and she was gazing up underneath it, like she was lifting a lady’s skirt. After squinting into the murky brown darkness there, she said, “I’ve seen this before. I know what this is—what it was supposed to be… But these aren’t all left over from the contest.”

“What?” Zeke asked. “What do you mean?”

“He’s been stealing Levi’s inventions and retooling them for his own purposes.” She said, “These are your father’s things. This machine, under here…” She yanked the sheet away to reveal a long, ghastly, crane-shaped device with wheels and plating. “This was a device to help build big boats, or that’s how he tried to sell it. It was supposed to do… I don’t remember. Something about moving large parts to and fro on a dock, so men didn’t have to carry them. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.”

“Why not?” Zeke wanted to know.

She told him, “Because how many boat-builders do you know that need artillery shells and gunpowder reservoirs? I’m not stupid. I guess I just didn’t want to know.”

“So Minnericht’s not—,” Zeke started to say.

Briar said, “Of course he isn’t. He scared me for a minute there, I don’t mind telling you. He’s about the right size, and about the right… I don’t know. The right typeof man. But it’s not him.”

“I knew he wasn’t. I knew it all along.”

“You did, did you?”

Zeke turned to Angeline and said proudly, “You told me not to believe anything he’d tell me, and I didn’t. I knew he was lying all along.”

“Good,” his mother said. “So what about you, Princess? What makes you so sure that the good doctor isn’t my dead husband? I got my own reasons for knowing. What are yours?”

She poked at her injury and winced, and covered it up with her hand. She stuck her shotgun back in the quiver and said, “Because he’s a son of a bitch. Always has been. And I’m…” Angeline started walking away from the battered door and down the corridor along the string of lights that lit the way overhead. “Well, I’m that bitch.”

Zeke’s jaw dropped. “He’s your son?”

“I didn’t mean it quite like that. A long time ago, he was married to my daughter Sarah. He drove her mad, and he killed her.” She didn’t swallow, and her eyes weren’t warming with tears. This was something she’d known and held against her chest for years, and merely saying it didn’t make the truth of it any worse. So she continued. “My girl hung herself in the kitchen, from the ceiling beam. So maybe he didn’t shoot her, or cut her wrists, or feed her poison… but he killed her as sure as if he had.”

Briar asked, “So what’s his real name, then? It can’t be Minnericht. He didn’t sound like any Hessian I ever heard of.”

“His name’s Joe. Joe Foster. No man was ever baptized with a more boring name, and I guess he didn’t like it any. If he could’ve gotten away with it, after the Blight and after the walls, I think he would’ve taken Blue’s life over. He would’ve done it right away if he could. But he got hurt in the leaving. If you’ve seen his face, you know what I mean; he got burned up in a fire, back when people thought maybe the Blight could be burned away. So he did it slow, stealing another man’s life a piece at a time as he took these things—these inventions, toys, and tools. It took him a while to learn how to use them.”

Briar couldn’t think of the sinister Dr. Minnericht with the name Joe Foster. It didn’t fit. It didn’t match that odd man with a big personality and a big controlling streak that reminded her so immediately of her long-gone husband. But she didn’t have long to ponder it.

“Listen,” Angeline said, putting her bloody fingers to her lips. “Listen, you can still hear them, can’t you?”

She meant the rotters, still knocking against the braced-up door to the corridor behind them. “I can still hear them,” Briar admitted.

“That’s good, that’s good. As long as we can hear them, we know where they are. Now, do you hear anything up there?” She used the two fingers over her mouth to point at the ceiling.

Briar asked, “What’s up there?”

“We’re under the lobby, where all the shooting and trouble started.”

Zeke said, “Oh, yeah. Jeremiah went back up that way, ’cause there were rotters.”

Just then, an impossibly loud explosion shook the whole underground station, and in its wake the sound of falling masonry, brick, and rubble rained down from somewhere else, echoing the blast and dragging it out.

The trio stopped. Angeline frowned and said, “That didn’t sound like the Daisy to me.” She asked Briar, “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Yes, I do. And no, that didn’t sound right.”

Zeke said, “I heard that, once before. Jeremiah called it a Sonic Gusting Gun, I think.”

“Ooh, that can’t be good,” the princess murmured. “Jesus, I hope he’s all right. But he’s such a big man, and he’s got so much gear. I’m sure he must be,” she said. “We’ll stop, and be real quiet, and take a look.”

“I can’t leave him here,” Briar said. “He’s been real helpful to me. If he’s hurt—”

“Don’t start counting those chickens, Miss Wilkes. Not yet. I don’t hear any more fighting up there, do you?”

“I don’t,” she said.

Zeke agreed. “I don’t either. Maybe they moved on, or maybe everybody’s dead.”

“I’d rather you didn’t put it like that,” his mother complained. “I like those people. Those people from Maynard’s and the Vaults, they’ve been good to me, and they didn’t have to be. They helped me go looking for you. I don’t know if I’d have lived this long without them.”

Behind another door that was unmarked and unremarkable, Angeline pointed out another set of stairs. Briar thought that if she never saw another step in her life it would be too soon, but she led the way and let Zeke take up the rear. She was increasingly worried for the Indian woman with her bleeding belly; and she appreciated toughness, but Angeline wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. She needed a doctor—a real one, and a good one, and that didn’t bode well.

The only doctor Briar had ever heard anyone mention inside the walls was… well… it was Minnericht. And she had a feeling that if they caught up to him, he wouldn’t be very helpful.


Twenty-five | Boneshaker | Twenty-seven



Loading...