Boneshaker 66

Page 66


  “Cly?” Briar asked. “He’s good. He’ll get us out of here, don’t worry. ”

  Zeke said, “How do you know?”

  “He owes us a favor. Or he thinks he does, anyhow. ”

  Around the bend something fell and broke, and on the other side of the walls, the trundling waves of heavy, rotting feet were beating a gruesome time. “This is bad,” Briar observed.

  “Worse than that, probably,” said Angeline, though she didn’t sound too upset. She pulled a big-barreled shotgun out of a quiver she wore on her back, and checked it to make sure it was loaded. The injury in her side oozed, but did not gush when she let go of it.

  “You know your way around here?” Briar asked her.

  “Better than you folks do,” she said. “But not by much. I can find my way in and out, and that’s about it. ”

  “Can you take us out to the Vaults?”

  “Yes, but I still think you should head for the fort,” she groused, and pushed Zeke so he wouldn’t help her walk. “Get off me, boy. I’m walking all right. It stings a little, but it won’t be the end of me. ”

  “Good,” Briar said. “Because we’ve got problems. ”

  From inside the lift, a mournful groan came echoing. Pounding hands beat at the roof above, or from some other spot around the lift’s basket. Then there was a splintering, breaking smash… and they came tumbling inside. One or two blazed the trail, and then they poured in greater numbers through whatever passage they’d forced.

  The first three rotters off the lift and into the corridor were once a soldier, a barber, and a Chinaman. Briar pumped the rifle and aimed it fast, catching the first two in the eyes and blowing off the third one’s ear.

  “Mother!” Zeke shouted.

  “Behind me, both of you!” she commanded, but Angeline wasn’t having any of it and she used her own shotgun to take down the third.

  Scrambling hungrily over those three bodies came another round of rotters, half a dozen bodies wide and at least that deep.

  “Back!” Angeline cried. “Back, this way!” she said, even as she continued shooting.

  The noise in the corridor was deafening, and both Zeke and Briar had heads that were already throbbing. But it was either shoot and aim high or sit down and die; so the women kept firing as Zeke blazed a backward path around the bend, acting as scout and lookout while he tried to follow Angeline’s directions.

  “To your right! I mean, to your other right,” she corrected herself. “There ought to be a door there, at the end of the way. Beside the office!”

  “It’s locked!” Zeke shouted. The second word was drowned out by the calamity of his mother’s Spencer, but Angeline got the general idea.

  She said, “Cover me, just a second. ”

  Before Briar had time to do anything but comply, Angeline turned around and shoved Zeke out of her way. She unloaded her shotgun’s second barrel into the lock and the door flapped inward, shattering on its hinges.

  “It’s a back exit,” the princess explained. “He tells people it’s a dead end, but it’s his own personal escape hatch, the bastard. ”

  Zeke kicked the door’s fallen shards aside and wished they had something to close behind them, but it wasn’t going to work out that way and he didn’t have time to complain. He tried to let the women clamber up first, but he was unarmed and no one would let him.

  His mother took him by the crook of his neck where it met his shoulder and half threw him into the corridor, then almost tripped over him backward with her next shot. Angeline told him, “Get a move on!” and reloaded as she retreated. The hallway was dark and crowded, but Zeke could see stairs going up one direction and down another.

  “Which way?” Zeke asked, perching at the edge of the platform where the steps swapped angles.

  “Up, for Christ’s sake,” Angeline swore loudly and cocked her shotgun again. “We’re cutting past the main trouble, and if we go down they’ll trap us there. We’ve got to try up and out, if we want to survive. ”

  Briar breathed, “We can’t keep this up,” and fired her last shot from within the doorway.

  She knocked down the foremost rotter with a bullet; its forehead blistered and popped as it fell. That cleared perhaps ten yards between the surge of decomposing flesh and the narrow bottleneck of the emergency escape hall.

  “Up, all right. Up,” Zeke wheezed as he started to climb.

  “There’s another door on the first floor up. It’s dark. Feel around. You’ll find it. It should be unlocked; it usually is. I hope it is. ” Angeline gave instructions from some black-blanketed corner where Zeke couldn’t see her. As soon as they’d rounded the bottom bend and begun their ascent, the stairwell had become perfectly dark. Arms, elbows, and the burning-hot barrels of guns knocked against shoulders and ribs as the three tried to beat a retreat back up into the mere ordinary chaos of the living.

  “I found the door!” Zeke announced. He yanked on it, and almost flopped past it when it opened. Briar and the princess squeezed out behind him, then slammed the door. A brace as big around as Briar’s head was leaning helpfully against the wall, and together they shoved it up under the latch to hold it.

  When the horde of starving rotters crashed against it, the door jolted, but held. The brace strained and scooted slightly against the floor, but Angeline kicked it into place and stared at it, daring it to move.

  “How long will that hold?” Zeke asked. No one answered him.

  Briar said, “Where are we, Princess? I don’t recognize this place. ”

  “Put your mask on,” Angeline said in response. “You’re going to need it soon. Boy, that goes for you too. Put it on. We’re going to make a run for the topside, but it won’t help us any if you can’t breathe. ”

  Briar’s satchel wasn’t settled on her shoulder the way she liked it; she’d grabbed it in such a hurry that there hadn’t been time to adjust it. She did so then, lodging it into the familiar groove across her torso. She retrieved her mask and wormed her head up into the straps, watching while Zeke did the same. She said, “Where’d you get that? That’s not the mask you left home with. ”

  He said, “Jeremiah gave it to me. ”

  “Swakhammer?” Briar said. “What’s he doing here?” she asked no one in particular, but Angeline answered.

  “You took too long getting back to the Vaults. Lucy went down there and grabbed your friends, and then all hell broke loose. ” She took a deep breath that sounded like it hurt, like her lungs were snagged on something sharp. When Briar looked down at the woman’s side, she could see that the bleeding there was fresh.

  “They came after me? To rescue me?”

  “Sure, to rescue you. Or to start the war they’ve wanted for years. I’m not saying they don’t mean to help you, because they surely do—but I will say that they’ve needed an excuse to rise up like this, and you’re the best one they ever got. ”

  Above, a rickety string of rope was knotted around hanging lights powered by no source that Briar could see. But twisted together with the rope she could see metallic veins, wires woven together and transmitting whatever energy it took to illuminate them. They weren’t bright, but they showed the way well enough to keep them from stubbing toes or shooting one another from surprise. Large tarps covered things shaped like monstrous machines that had been pushed into corners, and stacks of crates were piled along the edges of the room, which was low-ceilinged, damp, and chilly.

  “What is this place?” she asked.

  Angeline said, “Storage. Extra things. Things he stole, and things he’ll use later, someday, if he gets the chance. If we had the time or wherewithal, I’d say we ought to set fire to this place behind us. There’s nothing here but things designed to maim and kill. ”

  “Like those chemist’s labs, downstairs,” Briar murmured.

  “No, not like those. These are things he can sell to a different market, if
he can work out how they operate. They’re leftovers from the big contest the Russians held, looking for a mining machine that could dig through ice and lift out gold. He’ll be a rich, rich man if the war goes on any longer. ”

  Zeke said, “He’s already a rich man, ain’t he?”

  “Not as rich as he’d like to be. They never are, are they, Miss Wilkes? Now he’s turning these things into war machines, since they weren’t much use as drilling machines. He wants to sell them back east, to the highest bidder. ”

  Briar was only half listening. She’d picked up the corner of the nearest tarp and she was gazing up underneath it, like she was lifting a lady’s skirt. After squinting into the murky brown darkness there, she said, “I’ve seen this before. I know what this is—what it was supposed to be… But these aren’t all left over from the contest. ”

  “What?” Zeke asked. “What do you mean?”

  “He’s been stealing Levi’s inventions and retooling them for his own purposes. ” She said, “These are your father’s things. This machine, under here…” She yanked the sheet away to reveal a long, ghastly, crane-shaped device with wheels and plating. “This was a device to help build big boats, or that’s how he tried to sell it. It was supposed to do… I don’t remember. Something about moving large parts to and fro on a dock, so men didn’t have to carry them. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. ”

  “Why not?” Zeke wanted to know.

  She told him, “Because how many boat-builders do you know that need artillery shells and gunpowder reservoirs? I’m not stupid. I guess I just didn’t want to know. ”

  “So Minnericht’s not—,” Zeke started to say.

  Briar said, “Of course he isn’t. He scared me for a minute there, I don’t mind telling you. He’s about the right size, and about the right… I don’t know. The right typeof man. But it’s not him. ”