Page 67r noted with real alarm—it was dripping steadily from one of his ears.
“I knew he wasn’t. I knew it all along. ”
“You did, did you?”
Zeke turned to Angeline and said proudly, “You told me not to believe anything he’d tell me, and I didn’t. I knew he was lying all along. ”
“Good,” his mother said. “So what about you, Princess? What makes you so sure that the good doctor isn’t my dead husband? I got my own reasons for knowing. What are yours?”
She poked at her injury and winced, and covered it up with her hand. She stuck her shotgun back in the quiver and said, “Because he’s a son of a bitch. Always has been. And I’m…” Angeline started walking away from the battered door and down the corridor along the string of lights that lit the way overhead. “Well, I’m that bitch. ”
Zeke’s jaw dropped. “He’s your son?”
“I didn’t mean it quite like that. A long time ago, he was married to my daughter Sarah. He drove her mad, and he killed her. ” She didn’t swallow, and her eyes weren’t warming with tears. This was something she’d known and held against her chest for years, and merely saying it didn’t make the truth of it any worse. So she continued. “My girl hung herself in the kitchen, from the ceiling beam. So maybe he didn’t shoot her, or cut her wrists, or feed her poison… but he killed her as sure as if he had. ”
Briar asked, “So what’s his real name, then? It can’t be Minnericht. He didn’t sound like any Hessian I ever heard of. ”
“His name’s Joe. Joe Foster. No man was ever baptized with a more boring name, and I guess he didn’t like it any. If he could’ve gotten away with it, after the Blight and after the walls, I think he would’ve taken Blue’s life over. He would’ve done it right away if he could. But he got hurt in the leaving. If you’ve seen his face, you know what I mean; he got burned up in a fire, back when people thought maybe the Blight could be burned away. So he did it slow, stealing another man’s life a piece at a time as he took these things—these inventions, toys, and tools. It took him a while to learn how to use them. ”
Briar couldn’t think of the sinister Dr. Minnericht with the name Joe Foster. It didn’t fit. It didn’t match that odd man with a big personality and a big controlling streak that reminded her so immediately of her long-gone husband. But she didn’t have long to ponder it.
“Listen,” Angeline said, putting her bloody fingers to her lips. “Listen, you can still hear them, can’t you?”
She meant the rotters, still knocking against the braced-up door to the corridor behind them. “I can still hear them,” Briar admitted.
“That’s good, that’s good. As long as we can hear them, we know where they are. Now, do you hear anything up there?” She used the two fingers over her mouth to point at the ceiling.
Briar asked, “What’s up there?”
“We’re under the lobby, where all the shooting and trouble started. ”
Zeke said, “Oh, yeah. Jeremiah went back up that way, ’cause there were rotters. ”
Just then, an impossibly loud explosion shook the whole underground station, and in its wake the sound of falling masonry, brick, and rubble rained down from somewhere else, echoing the blast and dragging it out.
The trio stopped. Angeline frowned and said, “That didn’t sound like the Daisy to me. ” She asked Briar, “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yes, I do. And no, that didn’t sound right. ”
Zeke said, “I heard that, once before. Jeremiah called it a Sonic Gusting Gun, I think. ”
“Ooh, that can’t be good,” the princess murmured. “Jesus, I hope he’s all right. But he’s such a big man, and he’s got so much gear. I’m sure he must be,” she said. “We’ll stop, and be real quiet, and take a look. ”
“I can’t leave him here,” Briar said. “He’s been real helpful to me. If he’s hurt—”
“Don’t start counting those chickens, Miss Wilkes. Not yet. I don’t hear any more fighting up there, do you?”
“I don’t,” she said.
Zeke agreed. “I don’t either. Maybe they moved on, or maybe everybody’s dead. ”
“I’d rather you didn’t put it like that,” his mother complained. “I like those people. Those people from Maynard’s and the Vaults, they’ve been good to me, and they didn’t have to be. They helped me go looking for you. I don’t know if I’d have lived this long without them. ”
Behind another door that was unmarked and unremarkable, Angeline pointed out another set of stairs. Briar thought that if she never saw another step in her life it would be too soon, but she led the way and let Zeke take up the rear. She was increasingly worried for the Indian woman with her bleeding belly; and she appreciated toughness, but Angeline wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. She needed a doctor—a real one, and a good one, and that didn’t bode well.
The only doctor Briar had ever heard anyone mention inside the walls was… well… it was Minnericht. And she had a feeling that if they caught up to him, he wouldn’t be very helpful.
Briar leaned against the door, pressing her ear to the crack and listening for all she was worth. On the other side she detected only silence, so she stopped and reloaded there in the dark, filling the rifle by feeling her way through her bag. It took an extra moment, but it was an extra moment she was willing to spare.
Finally she said, “I’m going first. Let me take a look. ”
“I can go first just fine,” Angeline argued.
“But my gun will fire more than twice, if it needs to. Keep a watch on my son, will you, ma’am?” she said, and she pushed at the door’s latch and let the wooden barrier creep back out of its frame.
Briar led with the barrel of her rifle, and followed with her masked face, swiveling back and forth to take in the whole scene despite the limitations of her visor. She could hear her own breath too loud in her ears, echoed and amplified in her mask, and it was still the same as when she’d first put it on and dropped down the tube. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to it.
The room before her was very different from the last time she’d seen it. The glorious unfinished lobby was littered with the aftermath of a localized but very vicious battle. Bodies were sprawled and folded across the regimental rows of chairs; she counted eleven at a glance, and she spied a magnificent hole in the wall that looked like it could’ve been cut by the Boneshaker machine itself.
And directly inside the hole, where the wall was bitten off and dangling in heavy, scarcely lifted chunks, Briar saw a foot atop the rubble, as if its owner had bodily created the hole and now languished within it.
She didn’t quite forget to scan the rest of the room, but her subsequent sweep of the area was perfunctory and fast. Without warning her son or the princess, still in their dark little cubbyhole, she ran to the foot and crawled up over the jagged blocks of broken masonry and marble until she could drop down beside it.
She let the Spencer fall off her shoulder, and set aside her satchel.
“Swakhammer,” she said, patting at his mask. “Mr. Swakhammer. ”
He didn’t respond.
The mask appeared intact, and mostly he did too—until she began to stick her fingers between the seams of his armor and feel for things that might be broken. She found blood, and quite a lot of it. She found that his leg was bending in an unlikely manner, broken somewhere below his knee and dangling inside a heavy boot with a steel-toed shell.
She was wrenching his mask away from his head when Zeke got tired of waiting in the stairwell. He came to the wall’s edge and asked into the hole, “Is somebody in there?”
“It’s Jeremiah. ”
Zeke asked, “Is he all right?”
“No,” she grunted. The helmet came mostly off, but it was attached by a series of springs and tubes. It fell away, but didn’t roll far. “Swakhammer? Jeremiah?”
Blood had pooled inside the mask; it was coming from his nose and—Bria
“Is he dead?” Zeke wanted to know.
Briar said, “Dead folks don’t bleed. He’s done up brown, though. Jesus, Swakhammer. What happened to you? Can you hear me? Hey. ” She gently slapped his face, both cheeks. “Hey now. What happened to you?”
“He got in the way. ”
Minnericht’s filtered, masked voice came down like the hammer of God, echoing loudly through the chamber with its dead souls and split-open walls. Briar’s chest seized up in a tight flash of fear, and she wanted to scream at Zeke for leaving the relative safety of the stairwell. He was standing there, out in the open at the foot of the stone-cluttered hole, vulnerable as could be.
Briar stared down at Swakhammer, whose pupils were darting back and forth behind closed lids that were caked with drying blood. He was still alive, yes, but not by much. She looked up and said, loud enough that she could be heard from outside the hole and across the room, “You’re not Leviticus Blue. But you could’ve been his brother,” she added with as much bland apathy as she could muster. “You’ve got his sense of timing, that’s for sure. ”
Over the lip of the hole in the wall, she knew she had a bare ridge of shelter. The doctor, if in fact he was one, couldn’t see what she was doing—not very well. She used the moment and the cover to lightly frisk her friend in case he was carrying anything helpful. She’d chucked the Spencer aside. Even if it was within easy reach, she’d never get it up, cocked, aimed, and fired before Minnericht had time to do something worse.
One big revolver was lying alongside Swakhammer’s ribs, but it was empty.
“I never said I was Leviticus Blue. ”
Briar grunted as she tried to lift Swakhammer enough to feel around underneath him. “Yes you did. ”