Sixteen

1

Swakhammer shined his lantern at a pile of broken and buried crates that had been stacked haphazardly and left to wobble and sink. It seemed to be the only way forward.

Me first” he said. “We ought to be far enough away from Maynard’s that maybe we’ll miss the worst of the swarm. Those things are relentless. They’ll try to dig through the floor until their hands wear off, and the louder they get, the more of their number they’ll draw.”

“Away from us,” Briar mumbled.

“Here’s hoping. Let me take a look around up there and make sure.”

He lifted one big leg to stomp on the bottom crate and it sank a couple of inches, squishing down into the muck. Once the crate had stopped drooping, he brought the other leg around and climbed slowly up the rickety pile. A set of reinforcing metal bands peeled back with a splintering scrape that was louder than gunfire in the muffled underground.

Everyone cringed and held silent and still. Lucy asked, “Do you hear anything?” Swakhammer said, “No, but let me look.”

Briar shuffled and lifted her boot up out of the muck, but she was forced to put it right back where it had been sinking. There was no place sturdy enough to stand without feeling the slow, sticky draw of the wet earth. “What are you looking for? More rotters?”

Uh-huh.” He pressed the back of his shoulder against the trap-door and locked his knees. “East way was plugged up with them. We’ve gone east underneath ’em, but I don’t know if we’ve gone east enough to miss the back end of the swarm. Everybody quiet now,” he said. The crates groaned beneath him and the mud slurped terribly at the cheap pine corners, threatening to bring the whole stack down. But the structure held, and Swakhammer strained to move himself quietly — and to lift the door without making a noise. “Well?” Hank asked, a little too loudly.

Lucy shushed him, but she looked up at the armored man and her eyes asked the same question.

I think it’s clear,” he said. He did not sound convinced, but the huddled crowd below heard no hint of shuffling, scratching, or moaning, either, so the silence was taken as a good sign.

Swakhammer lowered the door again and addressed the group as softly as his altered voice would permit. “We’re at the apothecary’s on Second Avenue, right underneath old Pete’s storage cellars. As far as I know, there’s no connecting space between this basement and Maynard’s. Lucy, you know how to get to the Vaults from here, right?

“From here it ought to be one block down, and one block right.”

“Good. Now listen — Miss Wilkes — there aren’t any down-drops between here and there, so stick close and run like hell if it comes down to it.”

“Down-drops?”

“Entrances to the underground. Secured places. You know. Once we get outside, we’re stuck outside until we reach the Vaults. That’s the closest and safest place around here, outside of Maynard’s. And there’s no going back to Maynard’s for another day or two at soonest.”

“Goddamn,” Lucy grumbled. “And I just got it cleaned up again after last time.”

“Don’t worry about it, Miss Lucy. We’ll put it back together for you. But for now, we need to head down and stay down until we can sort out how the rotters found their way through so fast.”

“No,” Briar shook her head. “No, I can’t hunker down anywhere. I’ve got to find my son.”

Lucy put her hard, clicking hand down on Briar’s arm. She said, “Honey, the Vaults are as close to your boy as we’re likely to get, if you think he’s seeking the way to the Boneshaker. Listen, we’ll head over there, and maybe we’ll find someone who’s seen him. We’ll ask, and we’ll pass the word around. But you’ve got to stick with us if you want to keep yourself in one piece long enough to find him.”

Briar wanted to argue, but she bit the protest back. She nodded over at Swakhammer as if to tell him she agreed, and he accepted the gesture enough to lift the lid and push himself through.

One by one the fugitives from Maynard’s scaled the unsteady stack of crates and chairs, and one by one they emerged from the mildew-dank underworld and up into the basement of an old apothecary’s place.

Swakhammer’s lantern light was fluttering, on the verge of going out altogether, when Frank and Willard scared up a pair of candles in time to spread the glow out farther. They broke the candles in two to make the room brighter with extra flames, but Lucy gave a word of caution.

“Keep the candles up high, folks. These old crates are packed with munitions stuffed in sawdust. All it takes is one spark on a batch that ain’t soaked, so keep ’em close. We got everyone?” she asked.

Hank said, “Yes, ma’am.” He was the last one up, and the trapdoor dropped down behind him.

“Everyone’s masks all secured?”

Nods went around the circle. Buckles were tightened, straps were cinched, and lenses were adjusted into place. Briar checked her satchel and pulled her hat on over the mask. She slung the Spencer over her shoulder. In her pockets she found her gloves, and she thanked heaven for them. If she was going outside, she didn’t want any skin exposed.

While Swakhammer tiptoed up the basement staircase and tried his hand at the door’s latch, Briar worked the gloves on over her filthy fingers.

He unbarred the door and held a pistol out and ready, up next to his chest. The door swung out a few inches and he jammed his head into the crack. Looking left, and looking right, he concluded that the way was clear and announced this to the small crowd downstairs.

“Hurry up, stay quiet, and keep your heads low. The windows aren’t covered up too good. A rotter who’s paying enough attention can take a peek inside. Don’t give them anything to see.”

He let himself all the way into the shop, up into the back room, and out of the way so that others could follow behind him. “Come on. Hurry up. That’s right, everybody — go on past me now and I’ll watch the rear. We’re going to go out the side door. See it? It’s behind the counter. Try to keep yourself below the counter line, and I want all the candles out. I know we just lit them up, but I didn’t know the windows were uncovered and we can’t take a chance up here. We’ll be spotted faster than we can run. So put them out, and stick ’em in your pockets. We’ll want them later. Are we ready?

“Ready,” said a chorus of whispers, choked by mask filters and nervousness.

Come on, then”Swakhammer said.

Lucy went first. Swakhammer brought up the back of the single-file line and guarded it with pistols drawn, the Daisy bouncing against his back.

Briar kept her body curled in a crouch as she shuffled — hunched, bent, and half-blind from the darkness — through the boarded-up store with its dusty windows smeared with grime.

Within the store there was almost no light. Swakhammer had abandoned the lantern, and all but one candle had been snuffed and stored. That last candle was kept close and dim at Lucy’s chest, and it cast almost no illumination. But here and there, Briar could see smashed countertops that collected the dripping moisture of a building no longer in good repair. The wood of the floor and the window frames was warped with the sodden air and perpetual acidic, gnawing teeth of the ever-present Blight.

Lucy, you got that door?” he breathed, barely any quieter than his normal voice.

She bobbed her head and wrapped her mechanical hand around the big wooden brace that shut it from the inside. She leaned her head against the door and said, “I don’t hear anything.”

Good. Make way. I’m coming through”He shimmied sideways and hunkered up to the front of the line, and Lucy stepped aside so he could lead the way.

He looked back at the assembled crew, said, “Worse comes to worst…” and cocked his head at the Daisy, just sticking up over his shoulder. “But let’s keep it softer than that if we can. Just two blocks.”

“Two blocks,” Briar echoed. She swallowed hard, and told herself that she was making progress. She was getting closer. She was headed toward the neighborhood where her son might have gone, and that was a step in the right direction.

Swakhammer took Lucy’s candle and drew the door inward. The whole line of people behind him retreated half a step at a time, giving him room.

Outside the world was perfectly black.

Briar could’ve guessed that much from the inky interior of the apothecary’s shop, but she’d assumed that the debris-cluttered windows and the filthy glass might make a grim illusion. She hadn’t realized how late the day had become. “It’s night,” she breathed with some amazement.

Lucy reached over and squeezed Briar’s shoulder. “It takes some getting used to,” she whispered back. “Being underneath, it’s hard to tell the time; and God knows the days are short enough during the winter. Come on, sweetheart — it’s still Saturday, technically anyhow. Onward and upward. Over at the Vaults, maybe somebody will know about your boy. But first, we’ve actually got to get there. One thing at a time, right?”

“One thing at a time,” she agreed.

Swakhammer extinguished the last candle with a reluctant pinch of his leather-gloved fingers against its wick. As he drew the door wide enough to let himself out, Briar held her breath and waited for the night to try to kill them all.

But nothing happened.

Swakhammer hustled the group out the door and pulled it closed behind them, making sure that only the smallest click announced the seal. Then he turned back and growled so low that he could scarcely be heard, “Hold close. Hold hands if you can stand it. We’re going one block north and one block west. Miss Wilkes, you and that repeater should bring up the rear. Don’t be too quick to shoot. No noise if possible.”

Her hat brushed against the stone storefront as she nodded, and that was all Swakhammer needed to hear. He could barely see her, but she hadn’t objected. Briar retreated to the back of the line and pulled the Spencer off her shoulder, so she could hold it poised and ready to fire.

In line behind Hank, who was seemed on the verge of falling asleep where he stood, Briar tried to keep watch on both directions at once. But Hank fell behind and lost his place, and Briar shoved him back into position.

He was dragging, and she couldn’t afford to be dragged. She didn’t know where she was going, not really — and certainly not at night, in the dark, when she could not see the shifting forms of her companions. She could not see the sky above, not even the yellow tubes that she knew must sprout up into the air; and only if she squinted through the smudged lens of her cumbersome old mask could she detect the jagged outlines where the rooftops and spires of the crumbling buildings stood black against the clouds above them.

But she couldn’t look long. Hank was sliding back down, knocking his skinny shape against the walls.

She caught him with one hand, and propped him up with the rifle while she tried to steady him. Stupid goddamn drunk, she thought, but she didn’t say it out loud. She used all her weight to hold him in a semistanding position.

“What’s the matter, Hank?” she asked, pushing and shoving, and using her own limbs as crutches to keep him on his feet.

He groaned in response, but it didn’t tell her anything except that he’d had too much of the miserable yellow beer and now it was hurting him. She wished she could see to help, but it was hard to see, and harder to help when he swatted her hands away and rolled himself along the wall.

Hush up back there!” Swakhammer ordered, the metal in his voice cutting the hiss to a whistling demand.

“I’m trying to keep him —,” Briar started to say back, and stopped herself. “Hank,” she whispered to him, instead. “Hank, get yourself together. You’ve got to walk. I can’t carry you.”

He moaned again and seized at her hand.

She thought he meant to use it to push himself forward, and that was fine; she helped nudge him that way, back into his spot in the frightened, shuffling queue. But the moan stuck in her mind and it itched there, as if it ought to be telling her more than she’d heard at first.

Hank stumbled again and she caught him again, letting him lean on her shoulder as he ambled along. One foot kicked against the other and he crumpled to the ground against the curb, dragging Briar down with him.

She clutched at his hand and he clutched back. To the others, whose footsteps were scraping onward and away, she called out, “Wait!” in the loudest whisper she dared.

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.

Her own hand throbbed, and she shuddered to think of pulling off the glove. She didn’t want to know, but she needed to know — and fast. If the rotter had bitten through the dense material, there wasn’t much time.

She skipped awkwardly down the cracked stairs and almost fell at the bottom, where the room leveled out. It was so bright down there, after the absolute darkness of the streets above; for a moment she could barely see anything except for the hot, sizzling glare of the furnace by the far corner.

“We lost Hank,” Lucy said.

Swakhammer didn’t require any further exposition. He reached up for the double doors that might’ve marked a storm cellar, and he turned a crank beside them. Slowly, the doors ratcheted inward; then, with a loud drop they banged down into place. A waxed strip of fabric snapped along the seam where the doors’ edges met. Once he’d secured it, he reached for a great crossbeam that leaned against the stairs. Lie lifted it up and set it into place.

“We got everybody else?”

“I think so,” she told him.

Briar’s eyes squinted, and adjusted. And yes, everyone else was present — bringing the count of room occupants to about fifteen. In addition to the crew from Maynard’s, a handful of Chinamen crossed their arms and whispered beside the furnace.

For a terrible second, Briar was afraid that she’d returned to the place where she’d first landed, and these must be the same men she’d threatened with her Spencer; but her reason returned, and she realized that, no — she was quite a ways off from the market, and from the first furnace room where she’d descended down the dirty yellow tube.

Coal dust floated in dark puffs, and a sucking, whooshing gush of air dragged itself through the room as the bellows began pumping beside the furnace, forcing fresh air down through another tube and out into the underground.

At first, Briar hadn’t seen the bellows or the tube, but yes, there they were. Just like in the other room, though the furnace was smaller here, and the mechanisms that moved the powerful devices looked different somehow. They were familiar in a strange, unsettling way.

Swakhammer saw her staring at the furnace and answered her unspoken question. “The other half of the train engine wasn’t any good. Someone dumped it at the fill down by the water. We dragged it in here and now it’s a big old bastard of a stove, ain’t it? Nothing in the underground can cook a batch of steam faster.”

She nodded. “Genius,” she said.

“Tell me about it.” Lucy sat down heavily on a thick wood table at the edge of the fire’s reach. She used the light to inspect her arm, which she could no longer control with any real skill. It jerked and lunged against the top of her thighs when she rested it there to try to assess the damage. A thin, pissing stream of lubricant shot out over her skirt and stained it. “Son of a bitch,” she said.

Varney, who had been wholly silent since leaving Maynard’s, came to sit beside her. He took her arm in his hands and turned it over, looking at it from one angle after another. “You busted it up, huh? It’s heavy as hell, I guess. And look, you lost the crossbow.”

“I know,” she said.

“But we’ll fix it up, don’t worry. It’s dented in, right here. And right here,” he added. “And maybe a line’s broke. But we’ll fix it up and it’ll be good like new.”

“Not tonight,” she said. Her fist shot open, then crushed closed of its own volition. “It’ll have to wait.” She turned to one of the Chinamen and addressed him in his own language.

He nodded and ducked out through one of the passages — returning seconds later with a belt. Lucy accepted it and handed it to Varney. “Truss me up, would you, darling? I don’t want to hurt nobody tonight, not without meaning to.”

While Varney fashioned a binding sling to hold the broken arm against her, Lucy gestured with her chin, indicating Briar. “It’s time now, baby. Better sooner than later.”

Swakhammer pulled his mask off and stuffed it in the crook of his elbow. He said, “What are you talking about?”

“Hank bit her. Or one of them did, right on the hand. She needs to pop that glove off and let us look.”

Briar swallowed hard. “I don’t know if it was Hank or not. I don’t think it went through. It’s bruised me up good, but I don’t think—”

“Take it off,” Swakhammer ordered. “Now. If it broke skin, the longer you wait, the worse it’ll be to fix.” He stepped toward her and reached for her hand, but she drew it away, clutching it up to her breasts.

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t. I’ll do it. I’ll check it.”

“That’s fine, but I’m going to insist on seeing for myself.” There was no anger in his face, but there was no room for negotiation, either. He loomed up beside her and opened his arms as if he’d opened a door and was offering to let her go first. His fingers pointed at the old engine furnace, where the light was brightest and the heat was most intense.

“Fine,” Briar said. She took herself over to the edge, as close to the warmth as she could stand it; and she knelt down against a soot-stained stair to remove her mask and her hat. Then — using her teeth to tug at the wrist strap — she pulled off her glove.

She stared at the back of her hand and saw a half-moon of blue-red bruising on the flesh below her smallest finger. Holding the hand up close, and turning it to best catch the light, she peered at it hard.

“Well?” Swakhammer demanded, taking her hand into his own and flipping it up so he could see it, too.

“Well, I think it’s all right,” she said. She did not jerk her hand away. She let him look, because she wanted his opinion — even if she deeply feared it.

The whole room stopped breathing — except for the bellows. They gusted and gasped, and the yellow tube between the furnace and the table shuddered with the intake and outrush of air.

Swakhammer said, after a pause, “I think you’re right. I think you lucked out. Those must be some good gloves.” He released a big breath he’d been stashing in his chest and let go of her hand.

“They’re good gloves,” she agreed, so relieved that she couldn’t think of anything else to add. She cradled her hurt hand and shifted her weight so she could sit on the step instead of kneeling there.

Willard joined Varney at Lucy’s side. He said to no one in particular, “It’s a shame about Hank. How’d we lose him?” The question wasn’t broken or grieving, but it wasn’t happy. It was more than merely curious.

“His mask,” Lucy supplied. “Wasn’t on him good. It got loose, and he took in too much Blight.”

Willard said, “I suppose it happens.”

“All the damn time. But he was too drunk to be careful, and you see now what it gets you. Will, help me with this mask, will you, man?” Lucy changed the subject. She twisted her neck and tried to convince her hand to work, but it only fluttered against her sternum. “Help me take it off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He reached behind her, unbuckled her mask, and pried it off her skull. Then he tackled his own. Soon everyone was barefaced again.

The Chinamen hung back by the furnace, dark eyed and patient, waiting for their work space to empty again. Swakhammer noticed first, the way they lingered with unspoken impatience. He said, “We should get out of their way. These bellows need to run another two hours yet before the downside’s fresh enough to last the night.”

He gave a duck of his head that wasn’t quite a bow and wasn’t quite a nod, and he said a few words in another tongue. He didn’t say the words smoothly or quickly, as if they were sharp in his mouth, but Briar gathered that it was an expression of thanks and a request for pardon.

The leather-aproned, smooth-faced Chinamen appeared to appreciate the effort. They smiled tightly and bobbed their heads back, failing to conceal their relief as the group evacuated down a secondary tunnel.

Varney and Willard stayed close on either side of Lucy, and Swakhammer led the way with Briar beside him. The rest of them — Frank, Ed, Allen, David, Squiddy, Joe, Mackie, and Tim — brought up the rear. They marched together in silence, except for Frank and Ed, who were grousing about Hank.

Frank said, “It’s horseshit, is what it is. And turnabout’s fair play. We ought to go to the edges of the station and turn a few rotters loose down there, at Minnericht’s own front door.”

Ed agreed. “We could go in through the Chinese quarters. They’d let us, I bet. They’d let us if we told ’em what we were up to.”

“And the airmen who hang down at the fort, over by the tower. We could see if any of them are game to raise a little ruckus,” Frank proposed.

But Lucy hushed them from the front of the line. “Knock it off, you two. Don’t you go dragging other folks into your harebrained schemes. Nobody’s going down to the station. Nobody’s tempting fate, or rotters, or the doctor. We don’t need any more trouble.”

Briar thought it was Mackie who quietly complained, “Well how much trouble do we have to swallow before we say it’s enough?”

Lucy said, “More than this.” But she didn’t put much weight behind it.

Mackie mumbled a final word. “I’d like to see how he feels about rotters in his own parlor, biting on his own friends.” He might’ve said more, but Lucy stopped and turned around and stared him down until he closed his mouth.

With rounded walls and sealed, sucking doors that opened and closed like dirty airlocks, the corridor drifted gently down and over to the left.

“These are the Vaults?” Briar asked.

Swakhammer said, “Not exactly. There’s only one real vault, but the name stuck. The rest of what’s back here is mostly where people sleep. Think of it as a big apartment building, turned upside down. Not that many folks live here, really. Most of the people that do live inside the walls have taken up residence at the edges — near Denny Hill, where the nice old houses have big, deep basements.”

“That makes sense,” she observed.

“Yeah, but there are drawbacks to living that far off the beaten path; I mean, if you need anything, it’s a tough hike down here to the core. Hell, you know what I’m talking about. Just now we got a man killed going two short blocks. Try picking your way down eight or nine. But people do it.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “The accommodations are a lot nicer. See what I mean?” He leaned on a latch and opened a metal-banded door with a sealed-up window. “It’s not exactly clean, and not exactly comfortable, but it’s pretty much secure.”

“That’s what I thought about Maynard’s.”

Swakhammer made a dismissive flap with his hand and said, “Down here we’ve got those guys.” She assumed he meant the Chinamen. “They’ve got the situation under control. If there’s trouble, they know what to do. Anyway, here’s your room, Miss Wilkes.”

She craned her head to look inside and saw exactly what he’d promised: a somewhat clean, somewhat comfortable-looking space with two beds, a table, a washbasin, and three steaming pipes that ran along the far wall.

“Look out for those pipes,” he added. “They keep the room warm, but you don’t want to touch them. They’ll burn your skin right off.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

“Briar, darling,” Lucy said as she maneuvered her way to the front of the line. “I don’t want to impose on your privacy, but I’m in a bit of a pickle here with this busted arm. Usually I don’t need much assistance, but I’d appreciate yours this evening.”

“That’s fine. We girls need to stick together, don’t we?” She understood a little too well why a woman might not want a man to be her extra hands, even if those men were the well-meaning sort with only the best of intentions.

Briar let Lucy go inside first, and as she settled her bottom on the edge of the bed, Swakhammer had one more set of useful instructions. “There are privies down at the end of the hallways, usually on the left. They don’t lock too good, and they don’t smell too great either, but there you go. Water can be found back towards the Chinamen. They keep it in barrels right outside the furnace-room doors. Anything else you need to know, Lucy can probably fill you in.”

“That’s fine,” she told him, and as he trooped away with the rest of the men tagging behind him like ducklings, she closed the door and went to sit on the other bed.

Lucy had leaned herself over so that her head rested on the flat, musty pillow. “I don’t need so much help, really,” she said. “I just didn’t want to spend the night surrounded by those silly old boys. They want to help, but I don’t think I could stand it.”

Briar nodded. She picked at her bootlaces and wiggled her feet out of the shoes, then went to sit beside Lucy to help her do the same.

“Thank you dear, but don’t worry about it. I’d rather leave them on for now. It’s easier to let ’em stay than to get ’em back on tomorrow. And tomorrow I’m going to get this old thing tuned up.” She shifted her shoulder in an attempt to lift the arm.

“As you like,” Briar said. “Is there anything else I can do for you, then?”

Lucy sat up and pushed the covers aside with her rear end. “I think I’m fine for now. By the way, I’m real glad about your hand. I’m glad you get to keep it. It’s a sad and aggravating thing to lose one.”

Briar said, “I’m glad too. That was awful fast, how Hank turned. What happened to make it go so much quicker?”

Lucy rolled her head back and forth, settling down onto the pillow. “I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I could give you a guess. All the Blight down here, it gets thicker and thicker each year. You used to be able to see the stars at night — but not anymore, just the moon if it’s good and bright. You can’t see the Blight itself exactly, but you know it’s there, and you know it’s collecting up inside the walls. One of these days,” she said, scooting back in the bed so she could lean against the headboard and prop herself and the pillow up enough to talk, “you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

“No. What do you mean?”

“I mean, these walls are just a bowl — and a bowl can only hold so much. The Blight is coming up from underground, ain’t it? Pouring more and more into this sealed-up shape. The gas is heavy, and for now, it stays down here like soup. But one day it’s going to be too much. One day, it’s going to overflow, right out there to the Outskirts. Maybe it’ll overflow and poison the whole world, if you give it enough time.”

Briar retreated to her own bed and unfastened her waist cinch. Her ribs burned without it, suddenly struck by its absence and almost missing the constriction of it. She rubbed at her stomach and said, “That’s a grim way to look at it. How long you think it’ll take before it comes to that?”

“I don’t know. Another hundred years. Another thousand years. There’s no telling. But down here, we’re figuring out how to live with it. It isn’t perfect, but we do all right, don’t we? And one day maybe the rest of the world will need to know how we do it. Even if I’m thinking about it too big — even if it doesn’t come to that — I can promise you this: One day before long the Outskirts are going to be swimming in this mess too. And all those folks outside these walls are going to need to know how to survive.”

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