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Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Boneshaker 40

Page 40

 

  A jostling stop signaled that she’d been heard.

  “What is it?” Lucy asked. “Where are you, honey?”

  “Back here, with Hank. There’s something wrong with him,” she said down into his hair, for his face was pressed against her collarbone.

  Lucy swore. “Hank, you idiot old drunk. If you get us killed, I swear, I’m going to kill you. ” As she spoke, the volume of her hushed recriminations rose in time with the impatient patter of her approaching feet. Some stray spark of light—some wayward, determined moonbeam or reflection from a window—kicked against an exposed bit of Lucy’s metal arm and glinted there, revealing her position.

  Briar only half saw it. Her attention was elsewhere, caught in the straps that bound the head of a hungover man with little sense of self-preservation.

  “Wait,” she said to Lucy.

  Lucy said, “I heard you baby, I’m right here. ”

  “No. Not what I meant. Wait—stay back. ” She could feel it when she ran her palm against his head; she could detect the fractured buckle and the dangling, unfastened strap that should’ve held his mask firmly against his face.

  He was wheezing. His head knocked lightly against her body and there was a rhythm to it that didn’t sound like breathing. Tighter and tighter he squeezed at her hand, and then at her arm, and then at her waist as he tried to draw her nearer.

  Briar resisted. She used the rifle to pry him off her and away.

  Lucy crouched down close and tried to grab him. She said, “Hank, don’t tell me you’re so soggy you’re getting fresh with our guest. ”

  But Briar grabbed the clockwork arm before Lucy could land a grip. “Don’t,” she said. She stood up and pulled Lucy back, too. “Don’t, Lucy. His mask has come off. He’s been breathing it. ”

  “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. ”

  “What’s going on hack there?”

  “Go on” Lucy said. “We’ll catch up to you. ”

  “Forget it” Swakhammer said, and a rustling of armor suggested he’d reversed his course.

  She insisted, “We’re right behind you. Get the rest of them under. ” Lucy said that last part quickly, because Hank was standing and straightening.

  Briar could see him too, the way his body’s shadow reluctantly hauled itself upright and shuddered. “It’s too fast,” she said to herself, or maybe to Lucy. “It shouldn’t change him so fast. It ought to take days. ”

  “It used to take days. It doesn’t anymore. ”

  They were paralyzed as long as Hank only stood, and did not make a move toward them. Briar breathed through the mask, “Lucy, what do we do?”

  “We have to put him down. Sorry,” Lucy said to him, or at least Briar hoped it was to the fresh and retching rotter who reached out with bony, angry hands.

  Briar used her elbow to knock the swinging rifle back into her hands. Although she could barely see even the fuzziest shape of the thing that once was Hank, she listened for his next gurgle and aimed for it.

  The blast hit him and knocked him down. She didn’t know if it’d killed him. She didn’t care—and Lucy seemed to approve.

  The barkeep seized Briar by the gun and drew her forward, and away. In only a few feet they collided with the wall they’d been hugging as they fled the apothecary’s shop, and they hugged it again together, their panting gasps revealing far too much of their location.

  Farther down the block, Swakhammer was doing his best to prevent an outbreak of full-on chaos. He held the crew together and pressed them firmly against the building with his own body and said, just loud enough for Lucy and Briar to hear, “Here’s the corner. Follow it around to the right. ”

  “I know,” Lucy said, no longer whispering, her voice tinged with frustration and fear.

  “Hush up!” Swakhammer told her, but his own vibrating words were creeping up as well.

  “It don’t matter. They hear us now,” Lucy complained, and still towing Briar by the warm gun, she led the way along the block. “Keep going, you big old bastard. I’ll bring up the rear with Miss Wilkes. ”

  “Lucy—”

  “Run, iron man. Stop arguing with me, and we’ll do the same,” she puffed.

  New moans coughed through the city night. They fed on one another, alerted by the noise and driven by their insatiable hunger for more meat—and they gathered, unhindered by the lack of light.

  Lucy jerked on Briar’s gun and pulled her toward the corner, where the clattering retreat of Swakhammer and the other denizens of Maynard’s could be heard above the racket. They were getting farther ahead by the moment, but Lucy acted like she knew where she was going, so Briar let her lead.

  Only two blocks, they’d said; but these must be the longest blocks in the universe, and the rotters had caught their scent, or their trail, or whatever thread by which they tracked their prey.

  Briar wrestled her way out of Lucy’s grip and said, “Not the gun. Might need it. ”

  “Take the apron ties. Stay with me. ”

  She wormed one hand’s fingers between the linen strips until her grip was assured. She said, “Got it. Go. How much farther?”

  Lucy didn’t answer; she only pushed forward.

  The corner. Briar felt it against her shoulder and side when she crushed herself against it, bobbing along in Lucy’s wake. Lucy yanked Briar to the right and followed the wall in this new direction, and along this new street they could hear it louder—the stomping, insistent footsteps of the rest of their party.

  “They’re getting away,” Briar panted. “Are we?”

  Lucy said, “Sort of,” and then slammed directly into an inrushing pod of rotters.

  Briar yelped and Lucy swung her marvelous mechanical hand into the fray, using it to bludgeon any hapless head that made it within reach. She brained one beast against the wall and punched the sinuses free from another before Briar could get her gun propped and fired—and when she did squeeze off a shot or two, she had no idea if she was hitting anything important.

  “Careful!” Lucy shouted, not because she was far away but because she’d just had a rifle discharge next to her head.

  “Sorry!” Briar gave a hearty tug on the Spencer’s lever and fired again at the clot of bodies. She’d dropped Lucy’s apron ties and was on her own, but Lucy wouldn’t let her get lost.

  She cranked the lever again and prayed for another round in the magazine, but there was no time to fire it.

  Lucy wrapped her arm around Briar’s waist and lifted her up, over, and past two fallen rotters—but something held onto Briar’s hand. She felt a surge of terror that was every bit as bad as the first time she’d ever heard that shaky, deathlike warble from a corpse’s throat.

  “It’s got me!” she shrieked.

  “No it hasn’t!” Lucy said as she swung that cannon-thick arm around and clapped it down on a brittle, flaking head that was as empty as a cup. The head shattered and Briar’s heart gave a horrified squeeze when she realized that the rotter had been holding her by its teeth.

  She gasped, “Lucy! Lucy, it—I think it hurt me!”

  “We’ll look later,” she said under her breath. “Take the ties again, doll. I’m going to need this arm. It’s all I’ve got. ”

  Briar did as she was told, and once again she trailed behind Lucy like a kite on a string. She could feel more than she could see the way Lucy used her arm like a battering ram and she used her weight to chug forward like a steam engine.

  The streets were blacker than the ocean at midnight and Briar thought she might throw up at any second, but she held herself together long enough to hear, “Over here, you two!”

  “Fire the Daisy!” Lucy commanded. “Fire it, or we’re finished over here!”

  “It’s warming up!”

  Lucy griped, “Muddy shit! I hate that stupid gun. Never works when—” A rotter swept its reach at her breasts and she battered it across the temple.
It toppled down off the curb. “When you need it,” she finished.

  They were close enough to their destination that Swakhammer heard them.

  “It works great!” he insisted. “It just takes a second! Now, ladies, cover ’em up!”

  Briar didn’t feel like she had the maneuvering room to obey, but she heard the warning hum from the enormous gun. As the sound bomb fired, she released Lucy’s ties and grabbed her own head with one arm and Lucy’s with the other, since Lucy couldn’t cover both ears at once. Then Briar buried her uncovered ear against Lucy’s breast.

  The women imploded together, dropping to the ground and huddling while the wave shook the world around them. All the grasping hands fell away, and when the worst of the blast had faded into a memory of shaking, breaking air, Swakhammer’s rolling steel voice began the countdown.

  Briar and Lucy staggered to their feet, quivering in their shoes. Both were disoriented, but Lucy said, “This way, I think. ”

  And with a crack and a snap, a red-white burst of light illuminated the crowded, dirty blocks with a glow that was almost blinding. “No need for dark or quiet now, is there?” Swakhammer said as he charged toward them, sizzling flare in hand. “You all right?”

  “I think so,” Lucy said, despite what Briar had told her.

  Swakhammer took Briar’s hand and Lucy’s arm and hauled them forward, stumbling, tripping over their own feet and the limbs of dead things that quivered where they’d fallen. “This is…” Briar’s boot caught on something squishy. She kicked free so she could run again. “The longest two blocks…” Her heel slipped against something wet and sticky. “Of my life. ”

  “What?”

  “Never mind. ”

  “Mind the step. ”

  “What step?” Briar asked.

  “That one. Watch it. Going down. ”

  She saw it then, because it was right underneath her. A square of hard yellow light burned down inside the earth, at the bottom of a stairwell gap lined with bags full of something heavy and muffling, like sand. Briar leaned against them and used them to steady herself as she descended, but Lucy stuck to the middle. Something was wrong with her arm: Even in the half-light and the frantic motion of escape, Briar could see that it was leaking fluid and ticking oddly.