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Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Boneshaker 62

Page 62

 

  Was this that army?

  The door was holding for now, but the armored man was shouting, “Go on, go back downstairs! Find another way out. Ezekiel!” he added, in case his audience wasn’t clearly enough defined. “Get out of here!”

  Zeke wrung the mask into a knot and stood to a crouch.

  Off to his left, behind a curtain, a man shrieked and flopped to the ground, dragging the curtain down with him. It covered him like a shroud. Around its bottom fringe a puddle of red crept and sprawled across the gray-and-white swirls of the polished floor.

  Twenty-five

  Zeke’s eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the room from corner to corner in search of some other exit. Wasn’t that what the armored man had said? Find another way out? But except for the door that strained against some shoving force on its other side, and the corridor through which the boy had initially come, he didn’t see any other outlets.

  The man in the steel suit was out of bullets.

  No, only one of his guns was out of bullets. He jammed the empty piece into his belt, against his belly, which was guarded by a metal plate. There was another gun wedged between his belt and his hip; he pulled it out and began a firing retreat.

  Zeke counted eight more quarreling, shooting men holed up behind the chairs and around the occasional crates. He assumed that at some point they’d all run out of ammunition and everyone would have to stop. But for the moment, lead crashed in piercing straight lines, splattering like hail driven sideways by the wind.

  Zeke wanted out. And the big man’s back was closing in on the corridor—he was trying to flush Zeke back downstairs, and maybe that wasn’t the worst idea in the world, after all.

  It was a straight shot across the floor, and he had a big man in a suit of armor drawing all the bad attention away from him. On the other hand, the big man in the suit of armor was no doubt going to follow him downstairs. But here, upstairs, there was nothing but death and confusion.

  Zeke decided to take his chances.

  He took a leap that became a very short, very low flight from the crates to the middle of the floor—and he finished up his course with a sprinting scramble that sent him headfirst down the stairs on his hands and knees. Fifteen seconds behind him the armored man came backward, more gracefully than Zeke would’ve expected.

  He grabbed the door and closed it with the full force of his weight at exactly the moment someone else came slapping against it from the other side.

  Zeke tumbled down, tripping and catching himself and falling around the corner until he couldn’t see what was happening above him—he could only hear it. He was back downstairs. It was much quieter there; even the blasts of the guns upstairs were muffled by the ceiling and the stone walls around him.

  Back where he’d started from, he felt a sense of failure, until he remembered the mask he clutched like a lifeline.

  Minnericht had said Zeke couldn’t have one, and he’d been wrong about that, hadn’t he? Granted, it had come off a corpse, but the boy tried hard not to think about the face that the visor had most recently covered. He tried to take the philosophical view that the other man couldn’t use it anymore, so there was nothing wrong with taking it, and that made sense. But it felt no less disgusting when he smudged his thumb along the inside of the glass and felt the dampness of someone else’s dying breath.

  Now that he had a mask, he didn’t know where to go or what to do with it. He wondered if he ought to hide it—maybe stash it in his room and wait for things to settle down—but that didn’t sound right.

  At the top of the stairs the armored man was holding his ground, but Zeke had no way of knowing how long that would last.

  At the bottom of the stairs, in the corridor with the row of doors and the lift at the end, there was nobody around but Zeke.

  Whether this was a good or bad thing, he had no idea. He couldn’t escape the impression that something had gone off the rails, and that the quiet supper he’d so recently escaped had terminated in a terrible situation. The chaos above was swiftly working its way down, held at bay by only one stairwell door that was under a steady assault.

  Paralyzed by indecision, Zeke listened as the shots slowed above. The distant sound of beating, banging, and shoving was dim at the edge of his hearing, and it didn’t mean anything pressing. The grunts of the armored man holding the door were stern and determined.

  Down at the far end of the hall, the lift began to move with a clustering rattle of chains. Zeke was still holding the contraband mask. He balled it up into a wad and jammed it under his shirt. And lest he be accused of acting sneaky, he called out, “Hello? Is anybody there? Dr. Minnericht? Yaozu?”

  “I’m here,” said Yaozu before Zeke could see him.

  The Chinaman swept off the lift before it had even settled properly. He was dressed in a long black coat that he hadn’t been wearing the last time Zeke saw him. Aggravation was carved into his face, and when he saw the boy these unhappy lines deepened.

  He snapped out one long arm with a billowing sleeve and settled his grip on Zeke’s shoulder. “Go to your room and shut the door. It barricades from within, by a tall bolt. It would take a catapult to knock it down. You’ll be safe there, for a while. ”

  “What’s going on?”

  “Trouble. Secure yourself and wait. It will pass. ” He ushered Zeke hastily down the hall, away from the stairwell door and the armored man holding his ground at the top.

  “But I don’t want to… to… secure myself. ” Zeke looked over his shoulder, wondering about the stairs.

  “Life is difficult, isn’t it?” Yaozu said dryly. He stopped at the door to Zeke’s quarters, jerked the boy to face him, and said the rest quickly. “The doctor has many enemies, but they tend to be a fractured lot, and they pose little danger to this small empire under the walls. I do not know why, but these fractured forces have suddenly joined. I suspect it has something to do with you, or with your mother. Either way, they are coming, and they are raising quite a lot of racket. ”

  “Racket? What’s the racket got to do with anything?”

  Yaozu held a finger to his lips and pointed up at the ceiling. Then he murmured, “Do you hear that? Not the guns, and not the shouts. The throbbing. The groaning. Those are not men. Those are rotters. The commotion draws their attention. It suggests to the walking dead that food is nearby. ” He said again, “If you wish to survive the night, close your door and leave it closed. I’m not trying to threaten you—only preserve you, as a matter of professional courtesy. ”

  And then he was gone, heading down the hall and around its sharp bend with his dark coat swirling behind him.

  Zeke immediately abandoned his own doorway and trotted back to the stairwell, hoping to learn something new or find it open and the way above it cleared of havoc. For all he knew, the fight may have migrated elsewhere, leaving him alone to explore for a way out.

  He could hear more tussling up there, and then a howl that was more of a lion’s roar than a man’s exclamation.

  It almost sent him running, but a new noise snagged his attention—and this new noise was less threatening. One part moan and one part gasp, the faint cry was coming from somewhere close, from behind a door that was not quite closed and not quite an open invitation to investigate.

  He investigated anyway.

  He pushed at the door and discovered a small kitchen that looked nothing like a kitchen. But what other room might have such bowls, lights, stoves, and pans?

  Inside, the room was too warm from the cooking fires. Zeke squinted against the heat and listened, and he heard the distressed panting once more, from underneath a table that was half covered with a burlap cloth that had once been a sack. He drew the cloth aside and said, “Hey. Hey, what are you doing here? Hey, are you all right?” Because Alistair Mayhem Osterude was cowering there, curled in a fetal shape with pupils so ghastly and large that they seemed to see n
othing, or everything in the whole world.

  He was drooling, and around his mouth he sported a series of fresh sores that looked something like a line of bubbling burns. With every exhalation, he wheezed. It was the sound of a violin string being scratched slowly lengthwise. “Rudy?”

  Rudy slapped at Zeke’s outstretched hand, then retracted his arm and clawed at his face. He mumbled a word that might have been, “Don’t,” or “No,” or another short syllable that expressed resistance.

  “Rudy, I thought you were dead. When the tower got busted, I thought you’d done died at the bottom someplace. ” He did not add that Rudy looked half-dead now. He couldn’t think of a good way to work it in.

  The closer he looked, the more certain he was that Rudy had been hurt badly—not badly enough to kill him, maybe, but badly all the same. The back of his neck was scraped and bruised, and his right arm was hanging funny. His shoulder had bled itself so extensively that his whole sleeve was damp and crimson. His cane was fractured; a long crack had opened up along one side. It didn’t look like it worked anymore, not as something to lean on and not as something to shoot with. Rudy had dropped it off to the side, and was ignoring it.

  “Rudy,” Zeke asked, tapping his knuckle against a bottle tucked against the man’s chest. “What’s that? Rudy?”

  His breathing had gone from shallow and noisy to almost imperceptible. The wide black pupils that stared at nothing and everything all at once began to shrink until they had turned to pinpoints. A dull twitching made Rudy’s stomach jiggle, then worked its way up his torso until his throat was rattling and his head was shaking. Spittle splattered against the underside of the table, and against Zeke’s shirtsleeves.

  The boy backed away. “Rudy, what’s happening to you?” Rudy didn’t answer.

  Someone else did, from the doorway. “He’s dying. Just like he wants. ”

  Zeke whipped around and stood so fast that he clipped his shoulder on the edge of the table. It smarted. He held it. He griped, “Dammit, Miss Angeline, couldn’t you knock or something? I swear to God, nobody ever knocks around here. ”