When Andan Cly said “now,” he actually meant, “When the rest of the crew returns”; but Cly assured Briar that the delay would be no longer than an hour—and anyway, if she could scare up a better offer she was welcome to take it. He invited Briar up to the cabin and told her to make herself at home, though he’d appreciate it if she didn’t touch anything.
Cly stayed outside, where he busied himself with the checking of gauges and the fiddling of knobs.
Up the rough rope ladder and through the porthole, Briar climbed into a compartment that was surprisingly spacious, or perhaps it only looked that way because it was nearly empty. Huge, flaccid bags hung from the ceiling on tracks that lowered and adjusted with pulleys; and in the edges at the stern and bow there were barrels and boxes crammed to the ceiling. But in the middle the floor was free, and hurricane lamps hung on hinges like ship lanterns from the crossbeams and from the high spots up on the walls where they were unlikely to be rocked or jostled. Inside them, she could see small bulbs with fat, yellow-glowing wires instead of flames. She wondered where Cly had gotten them.
Over on the right side, farthest from the ladder, there was a short set of wooden slat steps built against the wall.
Briar climbed those, too. At the top, she found a room packed with pipes, buttons, and levers. Three-quarters of the wall surface was made of thick glass that was cloudy in places, scratched, scraped, and dinged from the outside. But there weren’t any cracks in it, and when she flicked her nail against it the sound it made was more of a thud than a clink.
At the main control area there were levers longer than her forearm and bright buttons that flickered on the captain’s console. Pedals arched out of the floor to foot level, and hanging latches descended from the overhead panels.
For reasons she could not explain, Briar felt the sudden, fearful certainty that she was being watched. She held still, looking forward out the front window. Behind her, she heard nothing—not even breathing, and no footsteps, nor the creak of the wooden stairs—but even so she was positive that she was not alone.
“Fang!” Cly called from outside.
Briar jumped at the shout, and turned around.
A man stood behind her, so close he could’ve touched her if he’d tried.
“Fang, there’s a woman in there! Try not to scare her to death!”
Fang was a small man about the same size as Briar, and slender without looking fragile or weak. His black hair was so dark it shone blue, shaved back away from his forehead and drawn into a ponytail that sat high on the top of his skull.
“Hello?” she tried.
He didn’t respond, except to slowly blink his angled brown eyes.
Cly’s big head poked up from the portal in the floor. “Sorry about that,” he said to Briar. “I should’ve warned you. Fang’s all right, but he’s just about the quietest son of a bitch I ever met.”
“Does he…” she began, and then feared it might be rude. She asked the man in the loose-fitting pants and the mandarin jacket, “Do you speak English?”
The captain answered for him. “He doesn’t speak anything. Someone cut out his tongue, but I don’t know who or why. He understands plenty, though. English, Chinese, Portuguese. God knows what else.”
Fang stepped away from Briar and placed a cloth satchel down on a seat off to the left. He pulled an aviator’s cap out from the bag and put it on his head. There was a hole cut out of the back of the hat so that he could thread his ponytail through it.
“Don’t worry about him,” Cly emphasized. “He’s good people.”
“Then why is he called Fang?” Briar asked.
Cly scaled the steps and began crouching. He was too tall to comfortably stand in his own cabin. “As far as I know, that’s his name. This old woman in Chinatown, down in California—she told me it means honest and upright, and it doesn’t have anything to do with snakes. I’m forced to take her word for it.”
“Out of the way,” demanded another voice.
“I am out of the way,” Cly said without looking.
From below came another man, grinning and slightly fat. He was wearing a black fur hat with flaps that came down over his ears, and a brown leather coat held together with mismatched brass buttons.
“Rodimer, this is Miss Wilkes. Miss Wilkes, that’s Rodimer. Ignore him.”
“Ignore me?” He feigned affront as he failed to feign disinterest in Briar. “Oh, I should dearly pray that you wouldn’t!” He seized one of Briar’s hands and gave it a dry and elaborate kiss.
“All right, I won’t,” she assured him, reclaiming her hand. “Is this everyone?” she asked Cly.
“This is everyone. If I carried anyone else we wouldn’t have room for cargo. Fang, see about the ropes. Rodimer, the boilers are hot and ready to spray.”
“Topped off over in Bradenton. Ought to be good to go for another few trips.”
“So the leak’s patched?”
“Leak’s patched.” Cly nodded. “You,” he said to Briar. “You ever flown before?”
She admitted that she hadn’t. “I’ll be all right,” she told him.
“You’d better. Any spills are your own, and you clean them up. Fair deal?”
“Fair deal. Should I sit down somewhere?”
He scanned the narrow cab and didn’t see anything that looked comfortable. “We don’t usually take passengers,” he said. “Sorry, but there’s no first-class in this bird. Pull up a crate and brace yourself if you want to see outside, or”—he waved an enormous arm toward a small, rounded door at the back of the craft—“there’s sleeping spots in the back area, just hammocks. Not one of them is fit for a lady, but you can sit there if you want. Do you get sick from moving?”
“I’d ask that you be damned sure before you get too comfortable back there.”
She cut him off before he could say any more. “I don’t get sick, I said. I’ll stay out here. I want to see.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. He grabbed a heavy box and pulled it over the floor until it was next to the nearest wall. “It’ll be an hour before we get to the wall, and then it’ll take half again that long to set up for the drop and catch. I’ll try to set you down someplace… well, there’s no place safe in there, but—”
Rodimer sat up straight and jerked his head around to look at Briar. “You’re going inside?” he asked in a voice too deliberately melodic for a man his size and shape. “Good God almighty, Cly. You’re going to dump the lady off behind the wall?”
“The lady made a very persuasive case.” Cly watched Briar from the corner of his eye.
“Miss Wilkes…” Rodimer repeated slowly, as if the name hadn’t meant anything to him when he’d heard it spoken; but upon replaying it in his head, he suspected that it was important. “Miss Wilkes, the walled city is no place for—”
“A lady, yes. That’s what they tell me. You’re not the first to say it, but I’d very much prefer that you’ve said your last on the subject. I need to get inside, and I will get inside, and Captain Cly is being kind enough to assist me.”
Rodimer closed his mouth, shook his head, and returned his attention to the console under his hands. “As you like, ma’am, but it’s a damned shame, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I don’t mind you saying so,” she said. “But there’s no need to hold my funeral yet. I’ll be out again, come Tuesday.”
Cly added, “Hainey’s offered to pull her out on his next run. If she can hold out that long, she’ll be all right with him.”
“I’m not comfortable with this,” Rodimer grumbled. “It’s not right, leaving a lady in the city.”
“Maybe not,” Cly mumbled as he took his seat. “But when Fang gets back we’re taking off, and she won’t be making the return trip with us unless she changes her mind. Pull the front lift, will you?”
“Yes sir.” The first mate reached forward and tugged one of the levers. Somewhere above, something heavy disengaged one thing and connected with another. The clank from the shift echoed down into the cabin.
The captain squeezed a handle latch and tugged a shift bar toward his chest. “Miss Wilkes, there’s a cargo net on the wall behind you, fixed to the surface. You can hang on to that, if you need to. Wrap your arms through it, or however works best. Make yourself secure.”
“Will it be… will it be a rough ride?”
“Not too bad, I don’t think. The weather’s quiet enough, but there are air currents around the walls. They’re high enough that the wind off the mountains comes breaking around them. Sometimes we get a little surprise.”
Fang manifested in the cabin with the same scary silence as before. This time Briar knew not to gasp, and the mute Chinese man did not give her any further scrutiny.
A slight shift in the tilt of the floor signaled the start of motion. Against the exterior hull, tree branches scraped a high-pitched tune as the Naamah Darling began to rise. At first it seeped slowly upward of its own volition, unpowered by any steam or thrust, but lifted by the hydrogen in the lumpy inflated tanks above them. There was no real shaking or swaying, only a faint sense of rising until the airship cleared the treetops and floated above them, drifting higher, but not with any urgency or speed.
The whole operation was quieter than Briar expected. Except for the creaking of ropes, the stretching of metal joints, and the sliding of empty boxes across the floor downstairs, there was little sound.
But then Cly pulled a wheel-like column into his lap and flipped three switches along its side. Then the cabin was filled with the rushing hiss of steam being shifted from boilers into pipes, and down to the thrusters that would steer the vessel between the clouds. With the steam came a gentle lurch, east and up, and the Naamah Darling again offered moans, screeches, and groans as she lifted herself into the sky.
Once airbound, the ship moved smoothly with a forward drift augmented by the periodic burst of the steam thrusters. Briar rose from her seat at the edge of the cabin and came to stand behind the captain so she could see the world outside and below.
They weren’t so high that she couldn’t distinguish the boats and ferries that trudged along the water; and when they crossed the line between water and land, Briar could tell which blocks were which, and even determine the streets. The Waterworks compound was flat and spread unevenly across the shoreline. The low hills and sharp ridges had houses perched on them, leaning into them; and here and there great horses towed the water carts from district to district, making the weekly deliveries.
She looked for her own house, but did not see it.
Before long, the Seattle wall loomed in front of them, curved, rough, and gray above the Outskirts neighborhoods. The Naamah Darling floated closer to it, and then past it, and began a course around it.
Briar almost asked, but Cly anticipated her concern. “This time of year,” he told her, “proper transport ships on legitimate business don’t go so close to the city. Everyone takes the northern pass around it, up over the mountains. If we look like we’re going to dip inside, it’ll be noticed.”
“And then what?” she asked.
“Then what what?”
“What if you’re noticed, I mean? What would happen?”
Fang, Cly, and Rodimer all exchanged glances that told her plenty.
She answered on their behalf. “You’re not sure, but you don’t really want to find out.”
“More or less,” Cly said over his shoulder. “The sky isn’t regulated like the roads, not yet. The time will come, I’m sure—but for now, the only governing force in the air is distracted with the war back east. I’ve seen a couple of official ships, here and there, but they looked like fugitive war vessels to me. I don’t think they were out to police anyone, or anything. We’ve got plenty more to fear from other sky pirates, if you want the truth.”
“Fugitive war vessels… like Croggon Hainey’s ship?” she asked.
“Like that one, yes. I’m not sure what kind of favor he did himself, stealing a toy from the losing side, but—”
“They haven’t lost yet,” Rodimer interjected.
“They’ve been losing for a decade. At this point, it’d be better for everyone if they’d find a nice quiet spot to surrender.”
Rodimer pushed a pedal with his foot and used the back of his hand to flip a switch. “It’s a wonder the Confederate States have held out this long. If it weren’t for that railroad…”
“Yeah, I know. If it weren’t for a million things they’d have been smashed up ages ago. But they ain’t been yet, and God knows how much longer they’ll dig in their heels,” Cly complained.
Briar asked, “What do you care, anyway?”
“I don’t, much,” he told her. “Except that I’d like to see the country incorporate Washington, and I’d like to see some American money up here—maybe clean up that mess in the city somehow. There isn’t any more Klondike gold, if there ever was to start with, so there’s not enough local money to make them care, otherwise.” He flicked his hand at the window to his right, at the wall. “Somebody ought to do something about it, and Christ knows nobody down there has got half an idea of how it ought to get fixed.”
The first mate’s head bobbed in a semi-shrug. “But we make an all right living off it. Lots of people do.”
“There are better ways to earn livings. More decent ways.” Cly’s voice carried a funny threat, and neither Briar nor Rodimer pursued the subject further.
But Briar thought she understood. She changed the subject. “What were you saying about sky pirates?”
“I didn’t say anything about sky pirates except that they happen. But not so much around here, not usually. There aren’t too many shippers with nerve enough to duck down far into the gas. The way some of us look at it, we’re doing the Outskirts a favor by taking some of it away. You know, that gas is still coming up out of the hole. It’s still filling up that wall, like a big old bowl. What we skim off the top is only helping.”
“Except for what it gets turned into,” Briar said.
“That’s not up to me, and it’s not my problem,” Cly replied, but he didn’t sound mad at her about it.
She didn’t answer him because she was tired of arguing. “Are we almost there?” she asked instead. The Naamah Darling was slowing down and coming to a settled position, hovering above a segment of wall.
“We’re there. Fang?”
Fang rose from his seat and disappeared down the wooden steps. A few seconds later there was a sound of large things rolling or shifting, and then there was a dip and a jump as the ship found its balance. When the ship stopped bobbing, Fang reappeared in the cabin. He was wearing a gas mask and leather gloves so thick that he could scarcely move his fingers.
He nodded at Cly and Rodimer, who nodded back. The captain said to Briar, “You’ve got your own mask, don’t you?”
“Put it on.”
“Already?” She reached into her satchel and heaved it out. The buckles and straps were clunky and tangled, but she unfastened them, straightened them, and held the thing up to her face.
“Yes, already. Fang’s opened the bottom bay doors and anchored us to the wall. The gas is too heavy to rise very fast up here into the ship, but it’ll waft its way through the cabin once we get moving.”
“Why are you anchored to the wall?”
“To keep us stable. I already told you about the air currents. Even when it’s quiet, there’s always a chance a gust will grab the ship and throw her down into the bad blocks. So what we do is anchor with a rope that’s a few hundred feet long. Then we shove off like it’s a boat leaving a pier, over the city proper.” He unbuckled himself out of his seat and pushed the wheel away from his knees. The captain stood, stretched, and remembered not to stand up straight just in time to keep from cracking his forehead against the window.
“Then,” he said, “we’ll lower the empty bags and yank the thrusters into full drive. The thrusters will send us shooting back towards the wall, dragging the sacks behind us—and they’ll fill right up, fast as can be. The extra power will lift us up higher, because like I said, the gas is heavier than you think. We’ll need the boost to get all the way into the air again.”
Briar held her mask just over her face, strapped onto her skull but propped up above her eyes so she could talk. “So basically you drift out over the gas, drop the bags, and slingshot yourself back out of the city.”
“Basically,” he said. “So you have until we finish drifting. Then I’m going to hold you out over one of the air tubes. You’re going to have to either climb down it or slide down it. I’d recommend a combination of the two. Hold your hands and feet out to slow your fall. It’s a long way down, and I don’t have any idea what you’re going to find at the bottom.”
“No idea at all?” She was holding the mask up, unwilling to shut herself off from the rest of them by affixing it to her face.
He scratched at the side of his head and tugged a big black mask down over his nose and mouth. As he tightened the straps and worked it into position, his voice changed to a loudly muffled whisper. “I guess if I drop you down a tube, the odds are good you’ll wind up in an air pump room. But I don’t know what those look like. I’ve never seen one up close and personal. I know that’s how they bring down the good air, though—such as it is.”
Rodimer had jammed his own mask over his roundish face, leaving only Briar unprotected. She could smell the Blight already, strong and bitter below her, and she knew she ought to cover up, so she did.
But the mask was awful. It fit, but not very well. The seal around her face sucked itself into a tight groove, and the mask startled her with its weight as it hung from her forehead and her cheeks. She adjusted the straps over her hair, trying to keep them from painfully pulling the strands. Inside the mask it smelled like rubber and burned toast. Every breath was a little hard to draw, and it tasted a little bad.
“What’s that, an old MP80?” Cly asked, pointing at the mask.
She bobbed her head. “From the evacuation.”
“It’s a good model,” he observed. “You have any extra charcoal filters for it?”
“No. But these two were never used for long. They should be all right.”
“They’ll be all right for a while. A whole day if you’re lucky. Wait a minute.” He reached under the console and pulled out a carton filled with round discs of assorted sizes. “How big are yours?”
“Two and three-quarters.”
“Yeah, we’ve got some of those. Here, take a few. They’re not very heavy, and they might do you good in a pinch.” He selected four and checked them against one another, and against what light came through the windshield. Satisfied that they were sound, he thumbed them over to Briar. While she inserted them into her satchel, Cly continued. “Now listen, this won’t hold you for the next few days—I don’t have enough to set you up that way. You’re going to have to find some sealed spots with air in them. And they’re down there, I know they are. But I couldn’t tell you how to find them.”
Briar fastened her bag again, knocking the chin of her gas mask on her collarbone when she looked down. “Thank you,” she said. “You’ve been very kind, and I appreciate it. When I’m down there, I mean to go home—I mean, back to my old home, for all that I didn’t live there long. I know where there’s money, real money, and all kinds of… I don’t know. What I’m saying is, I’ll make a point to find some way to repay you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and his voice was unreadable there inside the mask. “Just stay alive, would you? I’m trying to repay a favor here myself, but I won’t consider it an even score if you go inside and die.”
“I’ll do my best,” she promised. “Now point me to the way out, and let me go find my son.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and pointed back down the steps. “After you.”
It was tough to climb down with the mask knocking against every other rung; and it was hard to see through the round, heavy lenses that cut off all Briar’s peripheral vision. The smell was already driving her mad, but there was nothing to be done about it, so she tried to pretend that she could see just fine, and she could breathe just fine, and that nothing was clenching her head in a viselike grip.
Down in the cargo hold Fang was unlatching the blocks that served as brakes for the big bags on their tracks. Rodimer worked from the other end of the room, gathering the deflated, rubber-treated sacks in his arms and pulling them along the track, drawing them over to the open bay door.
Briar shuffled carefully to the edge of the squared-off hole and peered down into the gas. There was nothing to see, and it shocked her.
The window in the floor revealed a brownish fog that swirled and puffed, obscuring all but the highest building peaks. There was no sign of the streets or blocks below, and no hint of any life except for the occasional caw of a distant black bird with a bitter grudge.
But as she looked longer, Briar saw tiny details here and there, between the briskly stirred clouds. The edges of a totem pole peeked through the gas and vanished. A church’s steeple punctured the ugly fog and was lost.
“I thought you said there were breathing tubes, or…”
And then she saw it. The ship was parked alongside it, so she wouldn’t have seen it by staring down and out, only at an angle. The tube was a bright, cheery yellow and frosted with bird manure. It swayed back and forth, but mostly stayed steady, bolstered by a strange and fragile-looking framework that was fastened around it like a bustle under a skirt. Briar couldn’t see what this framework was fastened to, but it was secured against something under the clouds of fog—perhaps rooftops, or the remains of trees.
The tube’s exit end was lifted up above the tainted air. It was big enough to accommodate Briar and possibly a second person at the same time.
She craned her neck to see it, trying to find the top.
“We’ve still got to rise a little,” Cly said. “Give it a minute. We’ll climb another few feet, and then we’ll be close enough for you to dive. The gas is dense. It’ll push us up a little farther before we load.”
“ ‘Dive,’ ” she repeated, trying not to choke.
The world was spinning beneath her, bleak, blind, and bottomless. And somewhere, hidden within it, her fifteen-year-old son was lost and trapped, and there was no one to go down there and get him except for his mother. But she had every intention of finding him, and hauling him out on the Free Crow in three days’ time.
Focusing on. this goal and swearing that it was a strict eventuality did little to calm the throbbing horror of her heart.
“Having second thoughts?” Rodimer asked. Even through his gas mask Briar thought she heard a note of hope in the question.
“No. There’s no one else to get him. He doesn’t have anyone else.” But she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the murky vortex beneath the ship.
As the Naamah Darling rose, pushed above the gas foot by foot, the air tube came into clearer focus. From the greater height Briar could see hints of other tubes jabbing up through the disgusting cloud. They waved like the antennae of giant insects hiding in the haze, pinned together with sticks and slowly bobbing against the nasty currents, but remaining always upright.
And then they were above the lip of the tube, just barely—just enough that Briar could grab it. She reached out a hand, down through the open bay, and she wrapped her fingers around the edge.
The tube felt rough to the touch, but strangely slick. Briar thought it might be burlap coated with wax, but through the thick lenses of the mask she couldn’t see well enough to guess any better. The tube was ribbed with hoops of wood to keep its shape, and these ribs bulged at four-foot intervals, giving the tube the appearance of a segmented worm.
Finally the ship was as high as it was going to get, and the tube’s mouth was just beneath it.
The captain said, “Now or never, Miss Wilkes.”
She took a deep breath, and it hurt—drawing the air, forcing it past the filters and into her chest. “Thank you,” she told him again.
“Don’t forget: When you get over the side, spread out to slow your way down.”
“I won’t forget,” she said. She tossed a parting nod at Rodimer and Fang both, and grasped the tube’s edge.
Cly walked around the square bay door. He twisted his wrist in a cargo net and used it to hold himself steady. “Go on,” he told her. “I’ve got you.”
Although he wasn’t touching her, she could feel him there behind her, arms out, unwilling to let her fall where she shouldn’t. Then his free arm swung to hold her elbow.
She leaned against him while she lifted her leg and sent it over the lip of the tube. With a short lurch she left the Naamah Darling and the support of the helpful captain and fell a few feet until she was straddling the tube’s wall. Briar snapped her arms and legs tight around it, clinging to it tightly.
She closed her eyes, but opened them again, because it was better to see even if the view nauseated her. The tube was not as steady as it seemed, and it dipped, weaved, and bobbed. Even though the motions were slow, they were impossibly high above the earth. Every fraction of an inch one way or another was enough to take her breath away.
Over on the Naamah Darling, three curious faces peered out through the bay.
They were still close enough, and the captain was long-limbed enough, that if she were to reach out and beg, they could pull her back on board. The temptation was almost more than she could stand.
Instead, one shaking finger at a time, she peeled her death grip free of the tube and sat up enough to pivot her hips and bring her second leg over the edge. She paused there for a moment, as if she were entering a bathtub. Then, with one last look over her shoulder—too quick to change her mind—she pitched forward into the deep black interior of the fresh air apparatus.
The shift from grim, watery daylight to full-on night was sudden and loud.
She did her best to hold her arms and legs out to slow her fall, but she quickly realized that she’d have to use one hand to hold the mask as she toppled down, lest it be ripped off by the sheer force of the scrambling slide. That left two legs and one arm for ballasting duty. Three being less stable than four, Briar clattered and tumbled, sometimes headfirst, sometimes knock-kneed and toes-first, down the yellow tube with its hard wood ribs.
She couldn’t see anything, and everything she felt was hard, damp, and whooshing past. As she toppled, a new and separate sound became louder and louder. It was hard to single it out over the clattering calamity of her descent, but there it was, a windy sound—in, out, in, out—as if some great monster waited openmouthed and breathing at the bottom.
She could sense that she was nearing that bottom, though she couldn’t explain how she knew. Still, she made a final, desperate push to brake her body’s battering drop: head upright, feet down, right arm out, both knees locked.
She finally dragged herself to a halt when her feet snared on a wider, thicker rib than the ones she’d plummeted past. The air sucked violently at her clothes, and then reversed its direction—coughing hard and long, pushing up and out. Briar thanked heaven she wasn’t wearing skirts.
After a ten-second blast the current reversed, and then came shoving back out again.
She could see nothing in the ink-dark hole under her feet, but between the enormous gasping breaths of the tube she heard machinery grumbling and large metal parts clicking together.
The air came and went with whistling moans, inhaling and exhaling Briar’s hair, her coat, her satchel. Her hat trailed above her head like a balloon, anchored by the ties that fastened it under her chin, over the mask.
She couldn’t stand there forever, but she couldn’t see where a farther fall might bring her. A series of clanks like the fastening and rolling of huge gears sounded in time with the breathing: close, but not dangerously close, she didn’t think. And at that point, all danger was relative.
On the air current’s intake stroke, she scooted one foot away from the rim and braced her back against the tube. Her foot felt around, examining the darkness by touch. She found nothing, so she lowered herself a bit more. Her arms strained against her body’s weight, even when the air tube’s outtake gasp tried to lift and expel her.
She let herself down another few inches, until she was hanging with her shoulders and chest level with the last sturdy rib, the toe-points of her boots dangling down over nothing, and finding nothing. By now she could reach the more substantial rib with her fingertips, so she unlocked her elbows and let herself droop down a few inches more.
Her feet scraped against something soft. The investigating motion of her swinging boots pushed it aside, only to land again on something else soft and small. Whatever she was fondling with the bottoms of her feet, it was resting on something firm, and that knowledge was enough to let her exhausted hands release their grip.
She fell, only briefly, and landed on all fours.
Under her hands and knees, small things broke with a hundred muffled snaps, and when the air tube exhaled again, she felt light fluttering bits of debris rise into her hair. They were birds, dead ones—some of them long dead, or so she guessed from the brittle beaks and decayed, dismembered wings that flapped with the shifting air. She was deeply glad she couldn’t see.
Briar wondered why the birds didn’t explode out through the tube every time the air flow shifted, but by exploring with her hands and feeling the gusting gasps, she thought that perhaps they had only collected there, out of reach of the tube’s main drawing and exhaling force. This was confirmed when she tried to rise and knocked her head against a ledge.
Her stopping place was only a shielded corner where detritus could accumulate. She held out her hands, crouched to keep from hitting her head again, and searched for the chamber’s boundaries.
Her fingertips stopped against a wall. When she pressed against this wall it gave a little, and she realized it wasn’t made of brick or stone. It was thicker than canvas, more like leather. Perhaps it was fashioned from several layers fused together—she couldn’t tell. But she leaned on it, and continued searching with her hands, up and down, seeking a seam or a latch.
Finding nothing of the sort, she pressed her head against the barrier and was almost certain she heard voices. The wall was too thick or the sound too distant for her to gather a language or any distinct words, but yes, there were voices.
She told herself that it was a good sign, that yes, there were people there inside the city and they lived just fine—so why not Zeke, too?
But she couldn’t bring herself to knock or cry out, not yet. So she held her ground, littered as it was with the corpses of long-dead winged things, and strained to learn more about whatever might wait on the other side. She couldn’t stay there in the feathered graveyard forever. She couldn’t pretend that she was safe. So she had to act.
At least she’d be out of the dark.
She balled her hands into fists and struck at the dense, slightly pliable wall. “Hello?” she yelled. “Hello, can anyone hear me? Is there anyone out there? Hello? Hello—I’m stuck inside this… thing. Is there any way out?”
Before long, the grinding apparatus of the inhaling, exhaling machine slowed and stopped, and then Briar could hear the voices better. Someone had heard her, and there was excited chattering on the other side of the wall, but she couldn’t tell if the chatterers were angered, or pleased, or confused, or frightened.
She smacked her fists on the barrier again and again, and she continued her loud, insistent plea until a line of light cracked to life behind her. She swiveled, crushing a small carcass underfoot, and held her hand up to her mask. Narrow though it was, the ribbon of white seared her eyes as if it were the sun.
The silhouette of a nearly naked head was outlined and backlit.
A man’s voice rattled something hurriedly, and incomprehensibly. He waved his hand at Briar, urging her to come out, come out. Come out of the hole where the dead birds gather.
She stumbled forward, toward him, her arms extended. “Help me,” she said without shouting. “Thank you, yes. Just get me out of here.”
He seized her hand and pulled her out into the light of a room filled with carefully controlled fires. She blinked and squinted against the sudden brightness of coals and a haze of smoke or steam, turning her head left and right, trying to see all the corners that the mask cut off from her vision.
Behind her and to the left, there was a huge set of bellows—a giant’s version of what might sit beside an ordinary fireplace. The bellows were attached to an elaborate machine with gears that had teeth as big as apples; and there was a crank to move the gears, presumably to pump the bellows. But the crank itself was folded against the side of the machine, resting there as if it were only a secondary means of moving the device.
Off to the side, a massive coal furnace with a smoldering-hot interior seemed the more likely power source. Its door was open, and a man with a shovel stood beside it. Four tubes of assorted materials and designs came and went from the mighty bellows: the yellow slide through which Briar had descended, a metal cylinder that connected to the furnace, a blue cloth tube that disappeared into another room, and a gray one—once perhaps white—that vanished back into the ceiling.
All around Briar the voices asked questions in a language she didn’t speak, and from every direction hands squeezed at her, touching her arms and her back. It felt like a dozen men, but it was only three or four.
They were Asian—Chinese, she guessed, since two of the men had partially shaved heads with braids like Fang’s. Covered with sweat, wearing long leather aprons that protected their legs and bare chests, the men wore goggles with tinted lenses to shield their eyes from the fires they worked.
Briar tore herself away from the men and retreated into the nearest corner that did not hold a furnace or an open bowl of flame.
The men advanced, still speaking to her in that tongue she could not decipher, and Briar remembered she had a rifle. She whipped it off her back and aimed it at the first man, and the next one, and the third—back and forth—and at the next two men who entered the room to see what the commotion was about.
Even through the charcoal filter in her mask, she could sense the soot choking the air. It smothered her, even though it couldn’t really be smothering her, could it? And it watered her eyes, though it couldn’t really reach them.
It was too much, too sudden—the masked and chattering men with their fires and their shovels, their gears and their buckets of coal. The darkness in the closed, claustrophobic room was oppressive and bright around the edges from the white-hot coals and the yellow flames. All the shadows jerked and twitched. They were sharp and terrible, and they looked violent against the walls and the machinery.
“Stay away from me!” Briar shrieked, only barely thinking that they might not understand her, or even be able to hear her very well through the mask. She brandished the rifle, swinging it and jabbing it at the air.
They held up their hands and retreated, still talking rapidly in spits and bursts. Whether or not they spoke English, they spoke gun.
“How do I get out of here?” she demanded, on the off chance that someone understood her language better than he could communicate in it. “Out! How do I get out?”
From the corner, someone barked a single-syllable reply, but she couldn’t hear it clearly. She quickly turned her head to glimpse the source and saw an elderly fellow with long white hair and a beard that came to a scraggly, pale point. A white film covered his eyes. Briar could see, even in the orange-and-black fever of the bellows room, that he was blind.
He raised a thin arm and pointed to a corridor between a furnace and a machine the size of a cart. She hadn’t seen it before. It was only a black sliver as wide as a drawer, and it seemed to be the only means of entry or exit.
“I’m sorry,” she said to him. “I’m sorry,” she said to the rest of them, but she didn’t lower the rifle. “I’m sorry,” she said again as she turned herself sideways and dashed for the hallway.
Into the narrow space she ran. After a few feet something slapped against her face, but she burst past it and kept jogging madly, into a better-lit walkway pocked with candles shoved into crannies. She glanced over her shoulder and saw long strips of rubber-treated cloth hanging down like curtains, keeping the worst of the smoke and sparks out of the brighter thoroughfare.
Here and there she saw slotted windows to her left, covered and stuffed with more treated cloth, papers, pitch, and anything else that might insulate and seal out the awful gas outside.
Briar was panting inside the mask, fighting for each lungful of air. But she couldn’t stop, not when there might be men chasing her, not while she didn’t know where she was.
It did look familiar, she thought. Not very familiar—not an oft-visited place, but a location she might’ve seen once or twice under better circumstances, and brighter skies. Her chest hurt, and her elbows ached a little from the bruising descent through the waving yellow tube.
All she could think was out: where the exit might be, where it might lead her, and what she might find there.
The hallway opened into a large room that was vacant except for barrels, crates, and shelves stocked with all manner of oddities. There were two lanterns, too, one at each end of a long wooden counter. She could see more clearly in there, except for the cutoff edges of her peripheral vision.
Listen as hard as she might, she couldn’t hear anyone following behind her; so she slowed down and tried to catch her breath while she glared from corner to corner at the boxes with their stenciled labels. It was hard, though, to gather her calm. She forced the air through the filters and dragged it through her mouth in a demanding, drawn-out gasp, but there wasn’t enough to satisfy, no matter how much she fought. And she didn’t dare remove the mask, not yet—not when her goal was to find her way out into the streets, into the thick of the gas. She read the labels on the boxes like the words were a mantra.
“Linen. Processed pitch. Eight-penny nails. Two-quart bottles, glass.”
Behind her there were voices now, maybe the same ones and maybe different ones.
A big wood door with glass cutout panels had been buttressed and sealed with thick black patches of pitch. Briar shoved her shoulder against it. It didn’t budge, not even to squeak or flex. To the door’s left, there was a window that had received similar treatment. It was covered with sheets of thin wood that had been thoroughly sealed around its edges and along its seams.
To the right of the door there was another counter. Behind it, there were stairs leading down into yet more darkness, with yet more candles glimmering above them.
Even around the ambient swish and press of the mask moving against her hair, Briar could hear footsteps. The voices were getting louder, but there was nowhere else to run or hide. She could go back into the corridor stuffed with onrushing Chinamen, or she could head down the stairs and take her chances with whatever may wait at the bottom.
“Down,” she said into the mask. “All right, down.” And she half stumbled, half skipped down the crooked, creaking stairwell.