Briar recognized the men by their shapes, because she could not see their faces.
Fang, a slight and perfectly motionless man.
Captain Cly, a giant who could be mistaken for no one else.
Light did not flood the walled compound, but it pooled enough to see by. Lanterns were strung the way the Chinese placed them, bound by ropes and lighting the pathways from above. Two men worked with a tool that spit fire and sparks, and a third pumped a steam generator that gasped and huffed hot clouds, sealing up the torn seams on the Naamah Darling.
It surprised Briar, how she almost hadn’t seen it through the pudding-thick air, but there it was: nearly majestic, despite its multitude of patches.
She said to Cly, “I thought you weren’t passing through again for a while?”
He said, “I didn’t intend to.” He cocked a thumb at another man, who had his back turned and was watching the ongoing repairs. “But old Crog got himself in a bind.”
“Got myself in a bind?” The captain spun and glowered so hard that Briar could see it behind his mask’s visor. “I got myself into no bind at all. Some miserable goddamned son of a bitch thief flew off with the Free Crow!”
“Hello, erm… Captain Hainey,” she said. “I’m very sorry to hear about that.”
“You’re sorry; I’m sorry. All God’s children are sorry” he said angrily. “The most powerful ship for miles, in any direction. The only warship ever successfully stolen from either side, and someone had the temerity to steal it from me! And you’d better count your lucky stars, ma’am,” he said, pointing a finger at Briar.
“Oh, I do. Every day, as of late,” she assured him. “For what?”
“With the Free Crow gone,” Hainey replied, “I’d have no way to lift you out, and heaven knows who else you might’ve met. But this big bastard agreed to help me catch the bird, so here we are.”
Cly added, “As you can see, it didn’t work out for Crog, but I’m glad to see we caught you, at least. We took a little damage,” he said, cocking his head to indicate the workmen, who had turned off their tools and were sliding down ropes that descended from the side of the ship. “You could ask your boy about that. What were you doing on board the Free Crow, anyway? I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since I realized who you were.”
Zeke, who’d been keeping quiet in hopes of being ignored, said sheepishly, “They told me the ship was called the Clementine. And I was only trying to get outside, back to the Outskirts. Miss Angeline set it up for me. She said they’d take me out and set me down. I didn’t know it was a stolen ship, or nothing,” he fibbed.
“Well, it is a stolen ship, or something. I stole it first, fair and square as a stamp on a letter. I changed it up. I made it worth flying. I made her into the Free Crow, and she’s mine as sure as I’m the one who built her from the rudder up!”
“I’m real sorry,” Zeke said weakly.
“So Angeline’s the one who put you up to it, is she? But she knows most of us who fly in and out of here,” Cly said, scratching idly at a spot where his mask wasn’t quite big enough to comfortably fit over his ear. “I don’t think she’d set you up blind, with a captain she don’t know.”
Zeke said, “She said she knew him. But I didn’t think she knew him real well.”
“Where is she, then?” Croggon Hainey all but shouted his demand. “Where is that crazy old Indian?”
“She’s on her way back to the Vaults,” Briar said, trying to inject some finality into the statement. “And we need to see about taking off. Things are bad back there, over at the station, and the badness is going to spread.”
Hainey said, “I ain’t worried. This fort’ll keep out almost anything. I’m gonna go find that woman and—”
And because he was trying to be helpful, Zeke said, “Mister, the captain’s name was Brink. He was a red-haired guy, with a bunch of tattoos on his arms.”
Hainey froze while he absorbed this information, and then his arms flew up again—and he began to punch at the air. “Brink! Brink! I know that old horse’s ass!” He turned around, still kicking and striking at everything and nothing, and wandered back toward the ship, swearing and making threats that Brink couldn’t hear.
Andan Cly watched his fellow captain storm across the fort’s yard until he disappeared behind the Naamah Darling. Then he turned to Briar and started to say something. She beat him to the punch.
She said, “Captain Cly, I know you didn’t plan to be back inside the city walls so soon, but I’m glad to see you all the same. And”—she paused, unsure of how best to phrase her request—“I hope I can impose on you for one more small favor. I can make it a profitable one, and it won’t even take you anywhere out of your way.”
“Profitable, absolutely. When we lift up out of here, I want to stop by my old house. I want Zeke to see where I used to live. And as you must remember, my husband was a rich man. I know where some of his money is hidden away, and I don’t think even the most industrious looters could have found it all. There are… hiding places. I’ll be happy to share whatever I can scrape up and carry out.”
As if he hadn’t heard the rest, Zeke said, “Really? You’ll take me there? You’ll show me the old house?”
“Really,” she said, though saying it made her sound tired beyond her years. “I’ll take you there, and I’ll show you around. I’ll show you everything,” she added. “That is, if the good captain would be so kind as to carry us over there.”
Croggon Hainey came out from around the back side of the Naamah Darling, still swearing to turn the air blue. “I hope Brink has the time of his life flying my ship, because when I catch up to him, I’m going to kill him dead!”
Cly watched Hainey with a narrowing of his eyes that was more a grin than suspicion. He said, “For the prospect of profit, I can probably talk him into a little detour. Besides, it’s my ship. We’ll swing by your house if you want. Is there anyplace we can dock, or at least tie down an anchor? ”
“There’s a tree in the yard—a big old oak. It’s dead now, I’m sure, but it should hold you steady for a few minutes.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. He looked her up and down, and looked Zeke over as well before saying, “We can take off as soon as you like.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Captain,” Zeke said. He leaned back and put an arm around his mother, which startled and charmed her.
It pleased Briar even as it made her feel a little sad. She’d always known he’d grow up someday, but she hadn’t quite expected it so soon, and she wasn’t sure what to make of it now.
She was hopelessly tired, and her eyes ached in her skull from the days of too little sleep and too much worry, not to mention the odd blow to the head. She leaned into the boy, and if she hadn’t been wearing her father’s old hat, she might’ve put her head on his shoulder.
Cly checked over his shoulder, and seeing that the workmen had finished with the last of the tools, he asked Fang, “Did we get Rodimer back on board?”
“Oh, yes, Rodimer,” Briar said. “I remember him. I’m a little surprised he’s not been out here chatting.”
Without any ceremony, Cly said, “He’s dead. When we crashed down, he broke something—inside, you know what I mean. He was all right for a bit, and then he wasn’t. And now, I don’t know. Now I guess we’ll take him home. Let his sister decide what to do with him.”
“I’m so sorry,” Briar said. “I rather liked him.”
“So did I,” he admitted. “But there’s nothing to be done about it now. Come on, let’s get out of this place. I’m sick of this mask. I’m sick of this air. I want to get out, and get moving. Come on,” Cly said. “It’s time to go home.”
And in less than half an hour, the Naamah Darling was airborne.
It lifted with caution as the captain tested its thrusters, its tanks, and its steering. It rose up lightly for such an enormous craft, and soon it was high above the fort.
Croggon Hainey took Rodimer’s seat and grumpily performed the services of a first mate. Fang strapped himself in and performed his navigational duties in silence, by hand signs and head movements. Briar and Zeke hunkered together by the farthest edge of the slightly cracked windshield corner and looked out over the city.
Cly said, “We’re going to stay within the Blight for now. If we go up any higher, we’ll meet crosswinds, and I want to baby this bird until I’m sure she’s working right. Look down and to the left. You see the station?”
“I see it,” Briar said.
She saw the crosswalks that interlaced like helpful, fingers, giving pedestrians a way in, out, and around the quarter where the half-built station stood against the mudflats at the edge of Seattle’s great wall. The fires below showed her plenty, and the men who tended them looked like mice.
The Naamah Darling drifted past the station’s clock tower a little too close for comfort. The blank face of a clock as big as a bedroom stared dully back at them, no mechanisms to make it keep the time and no hands to display it. It was a ghost of something that had never happened.
Over the streets the airship flew, and the rotters were filling the roads beneath it. They moved in pockets and clusters, bumping mindlessly from wall to wall like marbles spilled from a bucket. Briar felt a great swell of pity for them, and she wished with all her heart that maybe someday someone would put them all down—every one of them. They had been people once, and they deserved better. Didn’t they?
As the craft drifted higher, along the slope of the city’s sharpest hill, Briar thought of Minnericht and she wasn’t so sure. Maybe not all of them deserved better. But some of them.
And she looked at her son beside her. He stared out the same window, and down at the same shipwreck of a city. He smiled at it, not because it was beautiful, but because he’d beaten it after all—and now he would get the only reward he’d ever wanted. Briar watched him smile. She peeked at him, trying not to catch his attention by staring. She wanted him to smile, and she wondered how long that smile would survive.
“Miss Wilkes, I’m going to need some directions,” Captain Cly announced. “I know you lived up this hill, but I don’t know where precisely.”
“That way,” she pointed. “Along Denny. Straight up, to the left. The big house,” she said.
It rose up out of the bleak, smeared stretch of low-lying gas like a tiny castle—gray and sharp edged, and clinging to the side of the very steep hill like a barnacle on a boat. She could just see its flat tower and widow’s walk, and the gingerbread frosting that banded the gutters. What colors remained from the lovely old house were just light enough to show it in the darkness.
The exterior had once been painted a pale gray shade of lavender, because it was her favorite color. She’d even confessed, to Levi and no one else, that she’d always liked the name “Heather” and she wished her parents had thought of it. But Levi had said her home could be the color of heather; and maybe, should they ever have a daughter, Briar could name her whatever she wanted.
The conversation haunted her. It was sharp and hard, as if the memory had frozen and stuck in her throat.
She looked again at Zeke, from the corner of her eye. She hadn’t known about him at the time. So much had happened before he’d ever been thought of—and by the time she’d figured out why she felt so ill, and why she was hungry for such strange things… she was in the Outskirts, having buried her father for the second time. She was living on the silverware she’d taken from Levi’s house, selling it a piece at a time to survive while the walls went up around the city she’d called home.
“What?” Zeke caught her looking. “What is it?”
She made a nervous laugh so small that it might’ve been mistaken for a sob. “I was just thinking. If you’d been a girl, we were going to call you Heather.” Then she said to Cly, “There’s the tree. Do you see it?”
“I see it,” he said. “Fang, get one of the rope hooks, will you?” Fang disappeared into the cargo hold.
Beneath it, a panel retreated and a weighted grappling rope was pitched into the top of the long-dead tree. Briar could see it from the window, how just below her the branches snapped and fractured; but when the rope was yanked and wiggled it stayed. The Naamah Darling drifted, and caught, and hovered.
Beside the tree, a rope ladder unrolled and dropped to within a few feet of the ground.
Fang returned to the ship’s bridge.
Cly said, “That won’t hold us too terribly long, but for a few minutes it’ll be all right.”
Captain Hainey, now reluctantly serving as first mate, asked, “Do you need any help?”
Briar understood what he really wanted, and she said, “Could you let us have just a few minutes alone? Then come on inside, and I’ll help you find the gold that’s left. You too, Captain Cly. I owe you plenty, and anything you find is yours to carry home.”
“How many minutes?” Hainey asked.
Briar said, “Maybe ten? I want to find a few personal items, that’s all.”
“Take fifteen,” Cly told her. “I’ll restrain him if I have to,” he added.
Hainey said, “I’d like to see you try it.”
And Cly replied, “I know you would. But for now, let’s give the lady the time she’s asking for, all right? Go on now, before the rotters get wise that all the action isn’t down there at the station and make for the hills again.”
Zeke didn’t need to hear it twice. He dashed for the hold, and the rope ladder, and before Briar could catch up Cly was out of his seat. He caught her gently by the arm and said, “Are your filters all right?”
“They’re fine, yes.”
“Is there something… ? Is there anything… ?” Whatever he wanted to ask, Briar didn’t have time for it and she told him so. “Let me go after him, will you?”
“Sorry,” he said, and let her go. “You’ll need light, won’t you?”
“Oh. Yes, we will. Thank you.”
He handed her a pair of lanterns and some matches, and she thanked him for them. She jammed her wrist through their handles and held them by her forearm so she could freely climb the ladder.
Moments later she was standing in her old front yard.
The grass was as dead as the big old oak tree, and the yard was nothing but mud and the slickly rotten film of: long-gone grass and flowers. The house itself had turned a yellowed shade of brownish gray like everything else that’d been smudged by the Blight for sixteen years. Around the porch where rosebushes had once grown there was only the skeletal aftermath of brittle, poisoned flora.
She set the lanterns down on her porch and struck the matches to light them.
The front door was open. Beside it, a window was broken. If Zeke had done it, she hadn’t heard him, but it would’ve been easy for anyone to reach inside, unlock it, and enter. “Mother, are you in here yet?”
“Yes,” she said, not very loud. She couldn’t breathe, and it wasn’t the mask. Inside, everything was not as she’d left it, but it was close enough. People had come through; that much was obvious. Things were broken, and the obvious objects had been looted. A white-and-blue Japanese vase lay in shards on the floor. The china cabinet had been smashed and everything within it was missing or shattered. Beneath her feet, an Oriental rug was curled around the edges where it had been kicked by trespassers; and several sets of dirty footprints streaked across the parlor, and into the kitchen, and into the living area where Ezekiel was standing, staring at everything, taking all of it in—all at once.
“Mother, look at this place!” he said, as if she’d never seen it before.
As she handed him a lantern she said, “Here, have some light so you can actually see it.”
Look, there was the velvet couch, covered in dust so thick that its original color could not be told. Look, there was a piano with sheet music still clipped into place, ready to be played. And over there—above the doorway—a horseshoe that had never brought anybody any luck.
Briar stood in the middle of the room and tried to remember what it’d looked like sixteen years go. What color had that couch been? What about the rocking chair in the corner? Had it once had a shawl or a throw slung across its back?
“Ezekiel,” she whispered.
She said, “There’s something I need to show you.”
“Downstairs. I need to show you where it happened, and how it happened. I need to show you the Boneshaker.”
He beamed from ear to ear. She could see it in the scrunch of his eyes behind the mask. “Yes! Show me!”
“This way,” she said. “Stay close. I don’t know how well the floor’s held up.”
As she said it, she saw one of her old oil lamps hanging on the wall as if she’d never left. Its blown glass reservoir was untouched—it wasn’t cracked, or even crooked. As she walked past it, the light of her cheap industrial lamp flickered against it and made it look briefly alive.
“The stairs are over here,” Briar said, and her legs ached at the thought of climbing yet more of them in one day; but she pushed the door open with her fingertips and the hinges creaked a familiar squeal. They’d rusted, but they held—and when the door was opened they sang with exactly the same old notes.
Zeke was too excited to talk. Briar could sense it in his quivery fumbling behind her, and in his permanent grin inside the mask, and in the quick, happy breaths that whistled through the filters as fast as a rabbit’s.
She felt the need to explain.
“There was a contest, years ago. The Russians wanted a way to mine gold out of ice in the Klondike. Your father won the contest, so they paid him to build a machine that could drill through a hundred feet of ice.” With every step down, she added a new piece of exposition, trying to slow their descent even as she forced herself to make it. “It hardly ever thaws up there, I guess, and mining is a tricky thing. Anyway, Levi had six months to build it and show it to the ambassador when he came to town for a visit, but then he said he’d run the drill engine early, because he’d gotten a letter asking him to.”
She’d reached the basement.
She lifted her lantern and let it light the room. Ezekiel came to stand beside her.
“Where is it?” he asked.
The rays of her lantern illuminated a mostly empty room scattered with stray sheets that once covered machinery or other equipment. “Not here. This isn’t the laboratory. This is only the basement. This used to be where he stored all the things he was working on while he waited for someone to buy them, or while he waited to figure out what he was going to do with them.”
“What happened to it?”
“I’m guessing Minnericht made off with everything he could carry. Most of what I saw there in the station—well, a lot of it, anyway—came from here. Those beautiful lights—did you see them? Powered by electricity, generated from I-don’t-know-what. Did you see the gun he had? That triple-barreled thing? I never saw one down here, but I saw some drawings for it. They were on that desk.”
A squat, long piece of furniture was pushed against the wall. It was naked, without a single piece of paper or the smallest scrap of pencil left upon it.
“Minnericht, or Joe Foster, or whoever he was… I reckon he took everything that wasn’t nailed down. At least, he took everything he saw. Everything he could move. But he couldn’t move that goddamned Boneshaker, even if he knew how to find it.”
She opened the top right desk drawer and slipped her fingers underneath a hidden panel, where she pushed a button.
With a pop and a crunch, a shape like a door appeared in the wall.
Zeke squealed and ran to it.
“Watch out,” his mother warned. “Let me show you.” She went to the rectangular shape and ran her hands along the depression where the door had been revealed. She pushed the panel at a certain spot and it withdrew, sliding back with a squeak to reveal another set of stairs.
“Well,” she said. She lifted the lantern up high and held it out into the room. “It looks like the ceiling’s held.” But not much else had.
Part of one wall and all of the floor was totally lost, ground up like meat. Wires as fat as fingers dangled broken from the ceiling and lay scattered across heaping stacks of rubble that had been pushed up and back, shoveled aside as easily as snow by the giant machine that jutted out from the subterranean depths of the hill, and into the old laboratory.
The Boneshaker was intact, covered by the debris it had so efficiently generated. It was planted in the very middle of the room as if it had grown roots there.
The lanterns weren’t enough to push back all the darkness, but Briar could see the machine’s scratched steel panels between the slabs of fallen masonry, and the enormous drilling grinders still jabbed into the air like the claws of a terrible crab. Only two of the machine’s four grinders were visible.
The drill engine had not so much broken as crushed to dust three long tables that glittered with shards of glass. It had knocked down and demolished rows of shelving and cabinets; everything it had brushed against even lightly was shattered to splinters.
“It’s a wonder it didn’t bring the whole house down,” Briar whispered. “I tell you, at the time I thought it was going to.” Even through her mask, the air was stuffy and cool, and clogged with the mold, dust, and Blight of sixteen years.
“Yeah,” Zeke said, agreeing with anything she felt like saying.
At a glance, it appeared that the machine was on its side, but this impression was only a trick of the room’s proportions. It was nose-up, a third of the way out of the cellar’s floor. Its grinding drills—each one the size of a pony—had twirled and twisted around everything near them; Briar remembered thinking of giant forks twirling at a bowl of spaghetti. And although rust had taken the biting edges off the grooved, bladed drills, they still looked nastier than a devil’s dream.
Briar swallowed hard. Zeke crouched like he was going to jump, but she put out an arm to stop him. She said, “Do you see, on the top of it—there’s a thick glass dome, shaped like a bullet?”
“I see it.”
“That’s where he sat to drive the thing.”
“I want to go sit in it. Can I? Does it still open? Do you think it still works?”
He jumped before she could stop him, leaping across the gap and landing lightly on the stairs at the edge of the litter-clogged room.
Briar said, “Wait!” and she came after him. “Wait, don’t touch anything! There’s glass everywhere,” she admonished. The lantern in her hand was still swaying from her jump, so it looked like the dusty, half-collapsed room was filled with stars.
“I’ve got my gloves on,” Zeke said, and began a scramble that would move him across the floor, past the drills, and up to the driver’s bubble.
“Wait.” She said it with urgency, and with command. He stopped.
“Let me explain, before you demand that I explain.”
She slid down the stairs and crawled up beside him, onto the stacks of rubble and rocks and what was left of the cellar walls that coated the Boneshaker like a lobster’s shell.
She said, “He swore it was an accident. He said there was a problem with the steering and the propulsion, that the whole thing was out of his control. But you can see with your own two eyes how he put it right back in the basement when he was finished with it.”
Zeke nodded. He got down on his knees and brushed away what dust his hands could move, revealing more of the steel plating with its fist-sized dents.
“He swore that he didn’t know what became of the money because he didn’t take it, and he swore that he hadn’t ever meant to hurt a soul. And believe it or not, for a few days he was able to hide here. No one knew exactly where the machine had gone off to. At first, no one knew he’d driven it right back home, easy as turning a cart.
“But then your grandfather came around looking for him. I mean, everyone was looking for him, but if anyone knew where Levi’d gone off to, it’d be me, so this is where he came.
“I hadn’t talked to him since I’d run off to get married. My daddy never liked Levi. He thought Levi was too old for me, and I guess he was right. But more than that, he thought Levi wasn’t any good, and I guess he was right about that, too. So the last time I ever spoke to your grandfather, I called him a liar for saying my husband was a crook; and I lied through my teeth and said I didn’t know where my husband was. But he was right down here, in this laboratory.”
Zeke said, “I wish I’d got to meet him. Your pa, I mean.”
She didn’t know how respond to that, and a reply choked her until she could say, “I wish you had, too. He wasn’t always a real warm man, but I think he would’ve liked you. I think he would’ve been proud of you.”
Then she cleared her throat and said, “But I was awful to him, the last time I saw him. I threw him out, and I never saw him alive again.” She added, more to herself than to him, “And to think it was Cly who brought him back home. It’s a smaller world than you know.”
“Oh, yes. It was Captain Cly, though he was a younger man at the time, and nobody’s captain, I don’t suppose. Maybe he’ll tell you about it when we get back on the ship. He’ll tell you how the jailbreak really happened, since you’ve always wanted to know so badly. If anyone can set the facts straight, it’s him, since he was there.
“But later that same night, when my daddy came here looking for Levi, I went down into the laboratory like I knew I wasn’t supposed to. Your father’d made a big stink about it, how I shouldn’t go there without his permission. But I came on down and let myself inside while he wasn’t looking. He was under that dome, working with some wrenches or some bolts, with his backside hanging out and his head buried down deep in the Boneshaker’s workings. So he didn’t see me.”
Zeke was creeping up toward the driver’s panel, up toward that glass bubble that was thicker than his own palm. He hoisted his lantern as high over his head as he could hold it and peered through the scraped-up surface. “There’s something inside it.”
Briar spoke more quickly. “I opened the laboratory door, and right over there was a stack of bags marked FIRST SCANDINAVIAN BANK. Over there, where that table’s all broke up now, there were several sacks, lined up in a row and stuffed to busting with money.
“I froze, but he saw me anyway. He jerked up in that seat and gave me a glare like nothing I’d ever seen before. He started yelling. He told me to get out, but then he saw that I’d already seen the money and he tried a different approach: He admitted he’d stolen it, but told me he didn’t know anything about the gas. He swore it was an accident.”
Zeke asked, “What happened to the money? Is any of it still here?” His eyes scanned what was left of the room and, seeing nothing, he began to scale the Boneshaker’s resting place.
Briar continued. “He’d already stashed most of it. What I saw was only a little bit that he hadn’t got around to hiding yet. I took some of that with me when I left; and I stretched out every penny. That’s how we ate when you were little, before I went off to work at the water plant.”
“But what about the rest of it?”
She took a deep breath. “I hid it upstairs.”
And she said, faster than before, trying to spill the whole thing out before Zeke got a chance to see it himself. “Levi tried to sell me some snake oil about running away together and starting over someplace else, but I didn’t want to go anyplace else. And, anyway, it was plain as day he’d been planning to run off without me. He started shouting, and I was angry, and I was scared. And on that table, the one that used to be over here, I saw one of the revolvers he was trying to turn into something bigger and stranger.”
She didn’t let his exclamation slow her down. She said, “I picked it up and I held it out at him, and he laughed at me. He told me to go upstairs and get whatever I planned to take with me, because we were leaving town in the Boneshaker, and we were leaving within an hour. Otherwise I could stay there and die like everybody else. And he turned his back on me; he went right back up into the machine and started working again, just like I wasn’t there. He never did think I was worth a damn,” she said, as if it had only just occurred to her. “He thought I was dumb and young, and pretty enough to look nice in his parlor. He thought I was helpless. Well, I wasn’t.”
Zeke was close enough to the battered glass that when he held his lantern up to it, he could see a sprawled shape beneath it. He said, “Mother.”
“And I’m not saying he threatened me, or he tried to hit me. It didn’t happen like that at all. How it happened was, he got back into the Boneshaker, and I came up behind him, and I shot him.”
Zeke’s hand found a latch down by his knee. He reached down to pull it, and hesitated.
She told him, “Go on. Look, or spend the rest of your life wondering if Minnericht was telling you the truth.”
Zeke took one more glance back at the doorway, where Briar stood motionless with her lantern, then pressed the latch and pulled back the door. The glass dome lid hissed on a pair of hinges and began to rise.
A mummy of a man was seated inside, slumped forward and facedown.
The back of his head was missing, though pieces of it could be seen here and there in chunks—stuck to the inside of the glass, and to the control panel. The stray bits had gone black and gray, glued to wherever they’d splattered and fallen. The dried-out corpse was dressed in a light-colored smock and was wearing leather gloves that came up to its elbows.
Briar said, quieter, and slower, “I can’t even pretend I was protecting you. I didn’t figure out I was going to have you for another few weeks, so I don’t have that excuse. But there you have it. I killed him,” she said. “If it weren’t for you, I don’t suppose it would’ve ever mattered. But you’re here, and you’re mine—and you were his, too, whether he deserved you or not. And whether I like it or not, it matters.”
She waited, watching to see what her son would do next.
Upstairs, they both heard the sound of heavy feet stomping through the parlor. Captain Cly called out, “Miss Wilkes, you in here?”
She yelled back, “We’re down here. Give us a second; we’ll be right up!”
Then Briar said, “Say something, Zeke. I’m begging you, boy. Say something.”
“What should I say?” he asked, and it sounded like he honestly didn’t know.
She tried, “Say you don’t hate me. Say you understand, or if you don’t understand, tell me that it’s all right. Say I’ve told you what you’ve always wondered, and now you can’t accuse me of holding anything back anymore. Or if you can’t forgive me, then for Christ’s sake tell me so! Tell me I’ve wronged you, same as I wronged him years ago. Tell me you can’t understand, and you wish you’d stayed with Minnericht in his train station. Tell me you never want to see me again, if that’s what you mean. Say anything. But don’t leave me standing here, wondering.”
Zeke turned his back on her and stared again into the bubble of buttons, levers, and lights. He took a hard look at the shriveled body whose face he’d never see. Then he reached for the glass dome lid and drew it down until the latch caught with a click that held it closed.
He slid down the side of the big machine and stopped a few feet away from his mother, who was too terrified to cry, for all that she wanted to get it out of the way.
He asked, “What do we do now?”
“Yeah. What do we do now?”
She gulped, and released her death grip on her satchel’s strap. She wanted to know, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, do we go through the house, take what we can salvage, and go back to the Outskirts?”
She said, “You think maybe we should stay here. Is that it?”
“It’s what I’m asking you. Can we even go back to the Outskirts now? Would you have a job? You’ve been gone for days; I guess we both have. Maybe we should take whatever money’s left and see if the captain would take us back east. The war can’t go on forever, can it? Maybe if we go far enough north, or far enough south…” The idea faded, and so did his list of suggestions. “I don’t know,” he concluded.
“I don’t either,” she said.
He added, “But I don’t hate you. I can’t. You came into the city to find me. Ain’t nobody else in the world except you would give a damn enough to try it.”
Her nose went stuffy and her eyes filled up. She tried to wipe them both and forgot she was wearing a mask. She said, “All right. And good. Good, I’m glad to hear you say that.”
Zeke said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go upstairs and see what we can find. And then… and then… what do you want to do?”
She put her arm around his waist and hugged him fiercely as they climbed the stairs together.
On the floors above, they could hear the air pirates rifling through drawers, poking their hands through shelves and cabinets.
Briar said, “Let’s go give them a hand. There’s a safe in the floor of the bedroom, under the bed. I always thought I’d come back for it someday, I just didn’t know how long it’d take me.” She sniffled, and was almost happy. She asked, “One way or another, we’ll be all right, won’t we?”
“I think we might be.”
“And as for what we do next…” She took the lead and brought him back up into the hallway, where the combined light of their lanterns made the narrow space light up with warmth. “There’s a little time left to decide. I mean, we can’t stay here. The underground is no place for a boy.”
“Or a woman either, as I heard it.”
“Or a woman either, maybe.” She gave him that much. “But maybe that don’t apply to us. Maybe I’m a killer, and you’re a runaway. Maybe we deserve this city, and these people, and maybe we can make something good of it. It can’t be much worse than the life we’ve got outside the wall.”
Captain Cly’s hulking shadow met them in the parlor, and Croggon Hainey came in through the front door, adjusting his mask and still swearing softly about his missing ship. He paused long enough to say, “This is a strange thing, Miss Wilkes. I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to steal from anyone’s home before.”
She looked around at the coiled strips of damp wallpaper, the mushy rugs, and the squares of strange colors where paintings had once hung. Shells of furnishings languished along the walls and beside the fireplace, and the crisp, sharp edges of broken window glass made funny lines of burned shadows across the dirty walls. Through the windows, she could see that the sun was coming up outside—barely enough to lighten the gloom within, and not bright enough yet to make the place look truly tragic.
Zeke’s grin hadn’t stayed, but he raised it again like a flag and said, “Hard to believe there’s anything worth having in this old wreck. But Momma says there’s money stashed upstairs.”
She left her arm around him and kept him as warm and close as he’d let her. To the two air captains she declared, “This is my house. If there’s anything left that’s worth taking away, then let’s go get it. Otherwise, I’m finished here. I’ve salvaged what I can, and it’s enough to lean on.”
Zeke held still while she ruffled his hair; then he turned to Captain Cly and asked, “Is it true you were there, at the jailbreak? Momma says you were one of the fellows who took my grandfather back home.”
Cly nodded and said, “That’s a fact. Me and my brother. Let’s clean this place out, get back on board, and then I’ll tell you about it, if you want. I’ll tell you the whole story.”