Boneshaker 24

Page 24


  This having been established, she took a moment to examine her surroundings.

  She had not landed in the top floor of anything, as the staircase at the far wall demonstrated; and at one point in time her stopping place had almost certainly been a hotel. On the floor in front of the window there was a great smattering of broken glass, some of which had landed on a battered old bed with a brass headboard that had gone a nastily tarnished brown. A half-broken nightstand crouched against a wall, two drawers out on the floor, and a basin with a broken pitcher had fallen over in the corner.

  The floor creaked when she stepped across it, but the noise was no worse than the rumbling havoc outside, where more rotters were collecting, having been drawn by the cries of the others. Eventually they would break their way in, more likely than not; and eventually the filters in Briar’s mask would clog, and she’d suffocate.

  But Briar could worry about these things later. For the moment, she was safe. Or at least, she was safer than she had been a handful of moments before. Her definition of “safe” was increasingly flexible.

  Looking out the window, she could see an intersection below, where Commercial met some other thoroughfare coming down the hill. Rotters swarmed over the spot on the corner where the street’s name would be marked. It didn’t matter which one it was; it didn’t matter that she hadn’t caught the engraving in the ground to tell her more precisely. The streets were impossible now. Perhaps they’d been impossible for sixteen years. But she’d given it a go, and it had been her best effort. She’d been quiet and she’d been careful, and it hadn’t been enough. So this was it, then. The streets were navigated the same as the wall.

  Over or under. It would cost too much to go straight through.

  Briar went to the stairwell and pushed aside the door that had dropped from its hinges. Surely it went up no more than another floor or two. She’d go up, first, and see what it looked like from there.

  Inside the stairwell it was purely and perfectly dark. The noise of the rotters outside was muffled until it was almost absent, and she could almost forget they were out there, loudly waiting and demanding her bones.

  But not quite. Their arguments vibrated in her ears and tugged at her attention, no matter how hard she tried to push them out. Behind her eyes she remembered too clearly the peeling, gray fingers that had clung disembodied to the ladder—persistent to the very last.

  Her composure was returning, and with it, her breathing was slowing as she paced herself, scaling the stairs with a measured speed that let her body catch up and adjust.

  At the top of the stairs she found a door that opened onto the roof; and on the roof were a few signs of recent life. A broken pair of goggles had been kicked into a corner. A discarded bag had been crumbled and left to soak in a puddle of tar and water. Footprints smudged in coal crossed here and there.

  She followed the footprints to the roof’s edge. They disappeared on the ledge, and she wondered if the rooftop pedestrians had jumped or fallen. Then she saw the next building over. It was a taller structure by one full story, and there was a window on perfect parallel with the spot where she stood. This window had been boarded over with two doors that had been pieced together to form one much longer plank; and this plank was fastened up against the other building—left there like a drawbridge, to be lowered or raised depending on the necessity and danger.

  Below, one of the rotters had followed her around to the far side. It looked up with a revolting moan, and soon it was joined by more undead with similar intentions. In a matter of minutes, the whole building would be surrounded by them.

  As far as Briar could tell, the other building was wholly unoccupied. The windows were boarded or blank, with thin, sloppily drawn curtains and nothing moving on the other side of them.

  She might have better luck downstairs. She’d emerged in the city through the underground, so underground might be the best way to travel.

  Not very far away, and directly beneath her, something splintered and broke. The moans increased in their intensity, from added numbers and fresh agitation.

  Briar reached for her satchel and hastily reloaded. If the rotters had breached the building, she might have to shoot her way through them on the way to the basement.

  Her hands paused as they held the canister of shells, but only briefly.

  If she went downstairs and they came behind her, she’d be trapped there.

  She recommenced loading the rifle, and fast. Trapped downstairs, trapped upstairs. The differences were small, and she was damned either way. Better to keep her gun ready and her options open.

  The cacophony escalated, and Briar wondered if she hadn’t already lost the option of seeking a subterranean escape. She locked the cartridges into place and took another look over the edge.

  On the street the swarm gathered and clotted. The number of rotters had at least tripled, more than making up for the small handful she’d dispatched on her way up the hotel’s exterior.

  She did not see anyplace where they’d found entry. They did not disappear one by one or even in clumps to resume their pursuit; instead they flung themselves at the bricks and the boards, but made no progress.

  Again there came a crashing noise and the telltale shattering of damp wood.

  Where was it? And what was causing it?

  The rotters howled and staggered. They also heard the breaking commotion and sought its source, but they were unwilling to leave Briar, who felt very much like a bear that had been treed.

  “You, up on the Seaboard Hotel! Are you wearing a mask?”

  The voice shocked her worse than the rotters had. It burst out loud and hard, with a tinny edge that made it sound both foreign and loud. The words carried up from somewhere below, but not all the way down in the street.

  “I said, hey up there—you on the Seaboard. You on the roof. Have you got a mask or are you dying?”

  Briar hadn’t seen any indication that this was the Seaboard, but she couldn’t imagine who else the voice could be addressing. So she answered, as loud as she could, “Yes! I’ve got a mask!”


  “I said, I’ve got a mask!”

  “I can hear you, but I can’t understand you for shit—so I hope that means you’ve got a mask! Whoever you are, get down and cover your goddamned ears!”

  She looked frantically back and forth across the small sea of rotters, seeking the source of the instructions. “Where are you?” she tried to shout back, and it was ridiculous because she knew that wherever the speaker was, he’d never catch the question over the roiling symphony of the undead on the street.

  “I said,” the low voice with the metallic edge repeated, “get down and cover your goddamned ears!”

  Across the road, looking out from another broken window in another broken building, Briar glimpsed motion. Something bright and blue glimmered sharply, then winked out—only to be followed by a brighter light and a high-pitched, whirring hum. The hum carried up through the Blight and whistled past her hair, delivering a determined warning directly into her brain.

  She didn’t need to be told a third time.

  She ducked, flinging herself into the nearest corner and throwing her arms up over her head. Her elbows clenched tight around her ears and muffled them, but it wasn’t enough to keep out the needle-sharp wheedling of the electric whine. She pulled up her satchel and wrapped it around her skull, and she was still holding that position, facedown against the tar paper and bricks, when a blast pulsed through the blocks with a gut-turning pop that lasted far too long to be the report of a gun.

  When the worst of the shattering, thundering audio blow had dissipated, Briar heard the almost-mechanical voice gargle out another set of instructions, but she couldn’t hear it and she couldn’t move.

  Her eyes were jammed shut, her arms were locked around her head, her knees were fixed in place beneath her body, and she couldn?
??t budge any of them. “I can’t,” she whispered, trying to convey, “I can’t hear you,” but her jaw was stuck, too.

  “Get up now! GET UP, NOW!”

  “I can’t…”

  “You have about three minutes to get your ass up and get down here before the rotters get their bearings back, and when that happens, I’m going to be gone! If you want to stay alive in here, you need me, you crazy bastard!”

  Briar muttered, “Not a bastard,” at the distinctly masculine tirade. She tried to focus her irritation and turn it into a motive to move. It worked no better and no worse than the screamed demands with their monstrous inflections.

  Joint by joint she unfixed her arms and legs, and she stuttered to her knees.

  She dropped to them again in order to retrieve the rifle, which had slid down off her shoulder. Heaving that shoulder to retrieve the strap, she once again forced her boots up underneath herself. Her ears were ringing with that horrible sound, and with the horrible cries of the man down on the street—he wouldn’t stop yelling, even though she’d lost her capacity to understand him. She couldn’t stand, walk, and listen at the same time, not so shaken as she was.

  Behind her, the door to the stairwell was still open, sagging on its latch.

  She fell against it, and nearly fell down the subsequent steps. Only her momentum and her instinct for balance kept her upright and moving forward. Her body swayed and tried to tumble, but the longer she remained on her feet, the easier it became to stay that way. By the time she’d reached the first floor she was almost running again.

  Down in the lobby, all the windows were covered and it was darker than midnight except for the spots where slivers of the dim afternoon light leaked drably through the cracks. As Briar’s eyes corrected themselves to account for the dark, she saw that the desk was covered with dust and the floor was crisscrossed with more black footprints.

  There was a big front door with a massive plank across it.

  Briar yanked it up and rattled the door’s handles.

  The panic she felt was amazing. She would’ve sworn that she’d exhausted her store of manic fear, but when the door wouldn’t budge she felt another surge. She shook it and tried to yell through it, “Hello? Hello? Are you out there?”