The next morning, the Dreadnought pulled what was left of its cargo and passengers into the station at Salt Lake City. Everyone on board looked and smelled like a war refugee.
All the occupants, including the conductor, his crew, and all the porters, stumbled down from the metal steps and onto terra firma in the Utah territory with a sense of relief that prompted several of the remaining civilians to burst into tears. Chilled beyond the bone, with many of them sporting injuries large and small that Mercy had done her best to patch, everyone was dazed. The train’s boilers cooled and clacked, but its hydrogen valves were all tightened into silence. Its interior was littered with broken glass, bullet casings, and blood. There it sat on the line, abandoned and silent, a husk that-for all its mighty power-looked forlorn.
Mercy sat on a bench inside the station’s great hall with Ranger Korman, Inspector Galeano, and the three Rebel soldiers. All in a row they watched the people bustle by, coming and going, taking notes and asking the inevitable questions.
Though they received a few strange glances, no one stopped them to ask why three Confederates had been aboard or why they were being permitted to simply leave; and no one demanded to know what a Mexican inspector was doing there; and no one wondered aloud why a Texas Ranger was this far north and west of his home turf.
This was not America, after all. Nor the Confederacy, or Texas, or Mexico either. So if anybody cared, nobody said anything. There was no war here, Utah’s or anybody else’s.
Paperwork was sorted.
New trains were offered.
All the rattled civilians were sent to their original destinations.
Theodora Clay and her aunt Norene vanished without a good-bye. Mercy wondered if Horatio Korman ever got his gun back, but she didn’t ask. She was pretty sure that if he’d wanted it, he would’ve seen about retrieving it. Captain MacGruder and Lieutenant Hobbes were assigned to another train and other duties before Mercy ever got a chance to tell them how much she’d appreciated their presence. But she liked to think they knew, and understood.
In time, someone approached the three southern men and gave them envelopes with tickets, back east and south, Mercy assumed. The soldiers offered quiet parting salutations and tips of their hats and were gone. Inspector Galeano left next, taking his tickets and claiming his seat on a train that would eventually take him to his homeland, where he would have a most amazing story to tell.
Then it was the ranger’s turn. Horatio Korman stood, touched the rim of his hat, and said, “Ma’am.” And that was all.
He, too, left her seated on the wide wooden bench, all alone and not quite certain if she was glad for the sudden privacy after so many weeks of being cooped up and crowded . . . or if she was very, very lonely.
But finally it was her turn, and the conductor of her own train was crying, “All aboard!” on the tracks outside. She squeezed her tickets, climbed to her feet, and met her train.
It was called the Rose Marie, and it looked nothing like the Dreadnought, which was somehow both reassuring and disappointing. By comparison, the Rose Marie looked like a fragile thing, something that could not possibly make the remainder of the journey-over mountains or around them, across plains and along rivers, for another thousand miles.
But the little engine with its pristine sleeper cars and shiny steel trim carried her swiftly-at times even more swiftly than the Dreadnought ever did, which was no surprise, since its load was lighter and it was not dragged down with a militia’s fortune in arms and ammunition.
The rest of the mountain chain passed with a panorama of epic scenery sometimes covered in snow, and sometimes glittering with sky blue lakes of melted ice.
Mercy did not talk to her fellow passengers much. What would she say?
Beyond the most necessary pleasantries, she ignored and avoided them, and she was likewise ignored and avoided. Even though she’d cleaned her cloak and dress to the best of her abilities, they still showed bloodstains and tears, and-as she discovered in the washroom one morning-two bullet holes. Her hands were bandaged, a task she’d undertaken by herself and upon which she’d performed a decent job, if not a great one; but her fingers ached all the time as they healed, and the new skin stretched tight and itchy across the places where she’d lost the old.
The last thousand miles, between Salt Lake City and Tacoma, were exactly as uneventful as the first two thousand had been action filled.
Sometimes, when she thought she’d go stark raving mad with boredom, she’d remember lying atop the roof of the Dreadnought’s passenger car, the skin of her throat sticking to the freezing metal and her hands all but glued together by ice. She’d recall watching the southern soldiers as they ran, dodging, ducking, between the ranks of the hungry dead, running for their lives. And she imagined the smoke and snow in her hair, and then she considered picking up a penny dreadful or two at the next stop.
She picked up a total of three, using almost the very last of her cash.
She even read them. Well, she had the time. And nothing else to do.
And people tended not to bother a woman with a book.
After a few days, she checked the newspapers at every stop, looking for some sign that someone-anyone-had made it back and begun to explain what had happened at Provo . . . and the Dreadnought, and the people who’d ridden upon it. But she never spied any mention of any of these things, so she told herself that it must be too soon. Inspector Galeano could’ve never made it back to Mexico yet; Ranger Korman wouldn’t have even hit Amarillo yet; and Captain MacGruder wouldn’t be back at the Mississippi River yet. So she’d be patient, and wait. Eventually, the world would know. Eventually, a newspaper somewhere would have to announce the story and tell it whole, and true.
But not while Mercy Swakhammer Lynch made her way to the West Coast.
In a dull fog of fatigue and apathy she rode through Twin Falls, Boise, and Pendleton. She spent the night in Walla Walla, and in the morning boarded another train, one called the City of Santa Fe. Then, on to Yakima, from whence she sent her final telegram to her final destination, in hopes that the sheriff would be there to collect her, because if he wasn’t, Mercy had no earthly idea what she’d do next.
Cedar Falls. Kanaskat.
Auburn. Federal Way.
Mercy exited the train with an upset stomach and a nervous headache.
She stepped into an afternoon covered with low gray clouds, but the world felt bright compared to the relative shade of the train’s interiors. It was cold, but not exceptionally so. The air was humid and tasted strange-a little tangy, and a little sour with a scent she couldn’t quite place.
The station was a big compound, but the tracks were not very crowded, and the City of Santa Fe was the only train debarking. Only a few people milled around the station’s edges-the station managers, the engineers, the railmen who worked the water pumps and inspected the valve connections, and the ubiquitous porters . . . though she noticed that they weren’t all black. Some were Oriental, in the same sharp porter uniforms but with hair that was long and braided, and sometimes shaved back from their faces.
Mercy tried not to stare, but the sight of so many at once amazed and distracted her.
Her curiosity about the men did not distract her from the unsettling truth of her situation. She was three thousand miles from home, absolutely broke, and possessing virtually nothing but the clothes on her back and the contents of her medical satchel, which had become much depleted over the weeks.
She stood beside the station agent’s door and tried not to fret about the circumstances. She scanned the face and vest of every passing man, hoping to spot a badge or some other mark that would identify a sheriff.
So she was rather unprepared to hear, “Vinita Swakhammer?” Because in order to reply, she was compelled to address a smallish woman in her mid-to late thirties. This smallish woman wore pants that were tucked into the tops of her boots and a fitted waistcoat with a badge clipped to the watch pocket. Her jacket was frankly too large, and her brown slouch hat was held aloft by a curly tangle of dark brown hair that was streaked with orange the shade of cheap gold.
“Sh . . . ,” Mercy began. She gave it another shot. “Sheriff-?”
“Briar Wilkes,” the other woman said. She stuck out her hand.
“And you’re . . . you’re the sheriff?”
She shrugged. “If there’s law in Seattle, I guess it’s me as much as anybody.”
“I never heard of a woman sheriff before.”
“Well, now you have,” Briar said, but she didn’t seem to take any offense.
Mercy imagined it was the sort of thing she answered questions about all the time. She said, “I suppose so. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Don’t worry about it. Anyway, do you have any . . . bags or anything?”
“No. This is it,” Mercy said. Then she asked quickly, “How did you know it was me?”
Briar Wilkes cocked her head toward the station’s exit and led the way out. “For starters, you were the most lost-looking person on the landing. You must’ve had a real long trip, coming all the way from Virginia. You ever been out this far west?”
“No ma’am,” she said. “First time.”
“That’s what I figured. And anyway, you’re about the right age, and traveling alone. I didn’t know you were a nurse, though. That’s what the cross on your bag means, right?”
“Right. I worked in a hospital in Richmond.”
The sheriff’s interest was piqued. “Smack in the middle of the war, huh?”
“Yes ma’am. Smack in the middle.”
“That must have been . . . hard.” Sheriff Wilkes led the way back outside, which put them in front of the enormous building. “We’re going over there, just so you know.” She pointed down the street, where a set of docks were playing host to a small multitude of airships. “I hope you don’t have any trouble flying. I know some folks are afraid of it.”
“That’ll be fine. How far away is Seattle from here?”
“Oh, not far. It’s maybe thirty miles to where we’re going. And I can’t believe I didn’t think to tell you right away, but your pa’s doing all right. For a while there, we really thought he wasn’t going to make it, but he pulled through.”
“Really?” said Mercy, who likewise couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought to ask. It was the whole point of her trip, wasn’t it, finding her father, and seeing him?
Sheriff Wilkes nodded. “Really. He’s just about the toughest son of a gun I ever did know. Or he’s in the running for that title, that’s for damn sure. I say that, because you’re about to meet one of the other toughest sons of a gun I know. You see that dirigible right there?”
She indicated a patchwork metal monster that bobbed lazily above a pipe dock.
Mercy could see the top of it, but not much of the bottom. That bit was blocked out by the dockyard gate, and another, smaller ship. “I see it.”
“That’s the Naamah Darling. Her captain, Andan Cly, is a friend of mine and your daddy’s.”
“I didn’t know my daddy had any friends,” she said, then caught herself. “I mean . . . Oh hell, I don’t know what I mean. I haven’t seen him, you know? Not in years. Not since I was a little girl.”
Briar Wilkes said, “That’s what he told me, and he feels real bad about it. Worse probably than he’s willing to say. But when he thought he was dying, and we didn’t know how much longer we could keep him alive, the one thing he kept asking for, over and over, was to see his little girl.” She gave an ironic laugh. “Course, he was delirious as could be, and I finally figured out that his little girl had to be a grown woman now. And it took us a while to get enough details out of him to track you down. I won’t lie to you, it was a pain in the ass.”
“We sent out word with air captains in every direction, especially those who went pirating along the cracker lines, or who had connections back East. He said last he knew of you, you’d been in some town called Waterford.”
“That’s right,” she said.
“But we couldn’t find it, and could hardly find anyone who’d heard of it. But one of Crog’s old buddies-Crog, he’s . . . he’s another one of the air captains out here, one of Captain Cly’s good friends-anyway, Crog’s buddy said it wasn’t too awful far from Richmond.” She caught herself, or caught Mercy looking overwhelmed and uncertain. So she changed direction and said, “But I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, it took some doing, tracking you down.”
“Well, it took some doing, getting myself out here,” she said softly.
It was Sheriff Wilkes’s turn to say, “I bet.”
They walked in silence for the rest of the block, until they reached the gates. Then the sheriff paused and turned to her charge. “Listen, there are some things I ought to tell you, before we get to Seattle.”
Mercy got the distinct impression that Briar Wilkes was going to continue right then and there, on the very spot, telling her whatever things she had to say, but someone hailed her from over by the pipe docks.
“I’m coming, I’m coming. Keep your shirt on, Captain.”
Rather than declare further impatience, the speaker emerged from underneath the Naamah Darling, stepping slowly into the wide gravel aisle next to his ship. The captain-for this surely must be him-looked up and down at Mercy and said, “So this is Jeremiah’s girl?”
“Sure is,” said the sheriff.
“Damn sight prettier than her old man, I’ll give her that,” he said with a crooked grin that was surely meant to be disarming.
Mercy didn’t realize for a moment that she’d stopped in her tracks upon catching sight of Captain Cly. And then she understood his attempt to disarm, and why he seemed to move carefully, as if he thought he might frighten her.
She was staring at the single largest man she’d seen in all her life.
And Mercy Lynch had seen plenty of men in her time-soldiers, big fighting lads, strapping old boxers and wrestlers, blacksmiths and rail-yard workers with shoulders like sides of beef. But she’d never seen anyone who was quite the sheer size of Andan Cly, captain of the Naamah Darling. Seven feet and change, surely, the captain hulked in the center of the lane, holding still and keeping that crooked smile firmly in place, though now he was aiming it at the sheriff. He was an awesomely constructed fellow, with rippling arms and a long torso that boasted muscles like railroad ties under snow, showing through his thin undershirt. The captain was not particularly good-looking-he was bald as an apple with jutting ears-but his face wore lines of sharp intelligence and his eyes hinted at a warmth that might be friendly.
She thought he must be chilly, running around like that, but he didn’t look cold. Maybe he was so big that the cold couldn’t touch him.
Mercy Lynch gave his cautious smile a tentative return, and followed Briar Wilkes up to greet him. She shook his hand when he offered it to her, and she said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, I’m sure. I hope you had a pleasant trip.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but didn’t know what to say. So she closed it again, then responded, “It was an adventure. I’ll tell you about it on the way, if you want.”
“Can’t wait to hear it,” he said, and he scratched at the back of his neck-a nervous gesture, one that was holding something back. “But while we’re flying, I think we probably ought to tell you a few things about Seattle-before you see it for yourself, I mean. I expect Briar here told you about your father-that he’s doing okay after all?”
“She told me,” Mercy said.
He nodded, and quit scratching at his neck. “Right, right. But I don’t guess she got around to telling you about . . . where he lives?”
“It hadn’t come up yet,” the nurse responded.
“I was working my way to it,” Briar Wilkes said.
Mercy was forced to wonder, “Is it . . . is he . . . is it bad? Is there something wrong, like he’s in a jail, or a poorhouse, or something?”
The sheriff shook her head. “Oh no. Nothing like that. For what it’s worth, we live in the same place. Me and my son, we live in the same building as your dad. It’s just . . . well, see . . . it’s just . . .”
The captain took over. “Why don’t you come on up inside, and we’ll give you the whole story, all right?” He put a hand on her shoulder and guided her toward the ship. “It’s a long story, but we’ll try to keep it short. And there’s no shame on your dad in any of it. We just have a peculiar situation, is all.”
Beneath the Naamah Darling was a set of retractable stairs not altogether different from the ones that led up into a train’s passenger car, but longer by two or three measures. She followed the sheriff up inside the belly of the airship. The captain brought up the rear, drawing the steps behind himself and shutting them all inside.
The ship’s cockpit was all rounded edges and levers, all buttons and steering columns and switches in a curved display with three seats bolted into place. The center seat was oversized and vacant, marking it as the captain’s chair. The other two were occupied, and both swiveled so their occupants could see the newcomer.
In the left seat was a slender Oriental man about twenty-five or thirty years old. He wore a loose-fitting shirt over ordinary pants and boots, and a pair of aviator’s goggles was pushed up onto his bare forehead.
The captain pointed one long finger at him and said, “That’s Fang. He understands you just fine, but he doesn’t talk. Right now he’s pulling double duty as first mate and engineer.”
To which the occupant of the other chair said, “Hey!” in a tone of half-joking objection. The objector was a teenager still, and skinny as a rail with brown hair that hosted a nest of cowlicks.
Andan Cly pointed at him next, saying, “That’s Zeke, and . . . and where’s Houjin?”
An equally young head popped out of the storage bay at the rear of the craft. “Over here.” The head vanished.
“Over there, yeah. Of course he is. Anyway, that’s Zeke, like I said, and the other one’s Houjin-sometimes called Huey, sometimes not.”
Briar Wilkes pointed at the boy in the third seat and said, “Zeke’s my son. Huey”-she cocked her head toward the place where Huey had briefly appeared-“is his buddy. I guess they think they’re going to see the world together or something, if they can talk the captain into teaching them how to fly.”
The captain made a grumbling noise, but he didn’t put much weight behind it. “They’re both sharp enough, when they pay attention,” he said. It wasn’t high praise, but it made Zeke beam, and it brought Huey up out of the cargo bay.
The Oriental boy was Zeke’s age and approximate size. He had a keen, smart face and a long top braid like Fang’s, but he was dressed almost identically to Zeke, as if the two of them had coordinated this semblance of a uniform, and were determined to play at being crew.
The captain said, “All right, everyone. You’ve had your chance to stare. This here is Jeremiah’s girl, Miss Vinita Swakhammer.”
Mercy said, “Hello, um, everyone. And just so you know, I’m . . . well, I was married, so it’s Vinita Lynch. But y’all can call me Mercy if you like. It’s just a nickname, but it’s stuck.” Before anyone could ask, she added quickly, “My husband died. That’s why I’m out here alone.”
Andan Cly said, “I’m real sorry to hear that, ma’am,” and the sheriff mumbled something similar.
Standing in the center of the bridge, she felt large and awkward in their midst; and now they felt sorry for her, which made her feel even more conspicuous. She was taller and heavier than everyone present except for the gigantic captain, and her summer coloring stood out against the dark hair and eyes of everyone else. Unaccustomed to feeling quite so out of place, and a little uncomfortable at being the object of everyone’s attention, she nonetheless continued, “Well. Thanks a whole bunch for picking me up and giving me a ride out to my daddy. I appreciate it.”
Briar Wilkes assured her, “We’re happy to do it. And now that the captain’s finally welded in some extra seating, we’ve even got the space to transport you without making you sit on the floor.”
“Or stand up against the cargo nets,” the captain said under his breath, like it was a private joke.
The sheriff didn’t pay any attention to him; she just showed Mercy over to the wall beside the cargo hold, where a wide net was hanging behind a bench that had straps attached to it. “You and me, and either Huey or Zeke-depending on who loses that argument-will sit right over here. You just buckle one of these harnesses over you, and it’ll keep you from sliding around too much if we hit rough air.”
Mercy took a look at the apparatus, generally understood it, and sat down to fasten herself into place. Briar Wilkes took a seat beside her, and immediately the two boys bickered over who got to sit in the engineer’s chair. Zeke lost the ensuing battle and was subjected to the indignity of sitting beside his mother.
The boy asked Mercy, “You ever flown before?”
And she said, “Once. A few weeks ago. I flew from Richmond to . . . to Chattanooga, sort of.”
“Sort of?” his mother asked.
“Long story,” Mercy summed up.
As the steam thrusters hissed themselves to full power, the captain gave the order to unhook from the pipe. He pressed various buttons, and the ship drifted upward in a lazy rise.
No one spoke while the Naamah Darling launched-the quiet was an easygoing superstition, until the craft was tipping its crown up against the low, heavy clouds above Tacoma. Then the captain took the steering column and moved it smoothly, thoughtlessly, to swivel the craft to face the north. The thrusters were fired, and the hydrogen vessel began a leisurely flight.
Once these things were under way and there seemed little chance of distracting the captain from something important, Briar Wilkes cleared her throat. “Speaking of long stories,” she began, even though no one had spoken of such things for several minutes. “Now’s the time, I guess, to ask you what you might’ve heard about Seattle.”
“Seattle?” Mercy wrinkled her forehead. “Well, I guess I don’t know much. There was a gold rush up north, and it went through it, isn’t that right?”
Zeke muttered, “Something like that.”
His mother elbowed him. She said, “Go on. What else?”
She thought about it, and answered slowly. “I thought there was an earthquake or something, a long time ago. I had it in my head that the town was pretty much torn down, or just abandoned. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know anybody lived there, much less that my dad called it home.”
Briar nodded. “You’re more right than wrong. There was an earthquake; that’s a fact. But it was made by a big mining machine, and it tore up the city but good. A lot of people died, and a bunch of buildings were destroyed, but most of the city proper is intact.” She hesitated, as if that was not the correct spot to end her commentary. So she added, “In a sense.”
The captain chimed in, talking over his shoulder while he stared out the big glass wraparound windscreen. “It’s all still there,” he said. “Everything that didn’t go down with the Boneshaker is still standing.”
The sheriff said, “The mining machine.”
He went on. “That’s right. But whatever that machine did, tearing up the foundation like that, under the mountains . . . it stirred up a real nasty gas. The gas makes people sick as hell, and it kills them. In a sense,” he concluded with Briar’s qualifying remark.
“In a . . . sense?” the nurse repeated. She felt something warm and awful in her stomach and she could almost imagine where this was going, but she wanted to be wrong, so she went ahead and asked. “How does something kill somebody, but only in a sense?”
Briar Wilkes cleared her throat. “I hate to say you’ll have to see it for yourself, but I’m afraid that if I tell you, you won’t believe me and you’ll think I’m out of my mind.”
“It might surprise you, the things I might believe.”
“All right, then. The gas-we call it Blight-turns people all rotty, like they’re dead and walking, decomposing even though they’re still moving. And still,” she paused, “hungry.”
Mercy nodded. She had spent so many nights wondering where the gas had come from-the stuff from which the sap was made-and now, inexplicably and horribly, she was fairly certain she had her answer.
The captain said from his chair, “Anyway, that’s the sum of it.”
Inside the Naamah Darling, all was silent except for the whistle and clack of the ship’s inner workings. Then Mercy asked, “So this gas, it just comes up from the ground in this city?”
The sheriff said, “Yup. And there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it.” She hemmed and hawed. “Except for the wall they built.”
“A wall. All the way around the city, holding the gas inside.”
Mercy’s eyes narrowed. “And holding all the dead folks inside, too?”
“That’s right. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution. I’m just saying nobody knew what else to do, so that’s what they did. And the thing is, inside the wall, where the city’s all dead and full of gas . . . some folks live inside down there.”
“How?” she asked, wondering wildly if her father weren’t one of the undead, living down inside the gas like that.
Briar waved her hands like she was using them to weigh how much information she ought to dish out. “I ain’t going to lie-it’s complicated. You’ll get the hang of it real quick, though. You’ll see. Mostly it’s a matter of pumping fresh air down from outside the city, down to the underground where everybody lives, in the sealed-up parts.”
“In the . . . sealed-up parts. All right,” Mercy mused, calmer at having an explanation. “That sounds like a righteous mess to me, but I think I see where you’re going with it. And my daddy lives down there? Down in this walled-up city?”
The sheriff nodded with tremendous relief. “Yes. That’s it. He lives down inside the poisoned city. A bunch of us do. Me and Zeke here, and Houjin, and maybe a few hundred others, all told. The captain and Mr. Fang come and go-they don’t live there, but they know their way around. That’s the story of it, at least the hard parts.”
Mercy bobbed her head, considering all this, and matching it against what she’d seen on her trip out West. But she did not say anything to the sheriff or the captain. Not yet. There’d be time for it later-time for examinations and explanations, and questions and deductions. It could wait. She could sit on it for another few miles, maybe another few hours. Maybe another few days, just until she was certain and she understood more about how this strange northwestern world worked.
And when the Naamah Darling arrived at the Sound, and the walled city rose up underneath the dirigible like some dark, immense castle from a fairy tale that never knew a happy ending, Mercy knew that this world would be strange indeed.
Briar Wilkes unhooked herself from the harness and said, “I’ll get you a mask.”
“A gas mask, yes. It’s not safe to breathe in there until you get underground, into the sealed-off quarters. But those quarters aren’t equipped to handle an airship landing, so we put down at the old fort and head underground from there. And until we get underside, you’ll need a mask.”
Mercy watched as the captain and Fang donned their equipment. The boys also pulled out masks made of leather and glass, affixing them to their faces until everyone looked insectlike. Briar retrieved one from the cargo hold and gave it to the nurse, who’d never seen anything like it and wasn’t positive how she ought to wear it.
The sheriff saw her confusion and sat down beside her on the edge of the seat so she could almost face her. She pulled out her own mask and held it up, showing how the straps and seals were the same as the one in Mercy’s hand. “Like this,” she said, taking off her hat and stretching the mask’s straps to fit around her skull. “The seals need to be real fitted around your face, so it’s airtight. Make sure you don’t get your hair caught in them, or the ties from your cloak.”
“All right, I see. I think.”
And with a little help, Mercy matched the rest of them-her face turned buggy by the contraption she wore. It was uncomfortable and strange, and it smelled odd. Inside the rubber thing with its charcoal filters and thick glass lenses, everything tasted like medical tubing and the Dreadnought’s smokestacks.
“Everybody ready?” asked the captain. When he’d received a positive response from absolutely everyone on board, he said, “Good. Here we go. Dropping altitude and setting down at Fort Decatur. Approximate arrival time is, oh, I don’t know. Three or four minutes. Wind’s calm, and Petey’s got his flare showing all’s well. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now landing in the city of Seattle, such as she is.”
Mercy strained her neck but didn’t see what the captain was talking about, so she took his words on faith. When the ship began its dipping drift downward, she held on to her stomach and was very faintly glad that no one could see her face very well. She wasn’t going to be sick, not from the ride, at least. But the weight of the last month settled on her with a vengeance, now that she was very nearly at her destination.
She was there, in the place where the yellow sap came from-she was virtually certain of it, even before she could see the smoggy air smearing itself across the windscreen, leaving nasty wet smudges the color of boiled yolks.
She was there, in the town where her father had disappeared to all those years ago.
As the ship dropped lower, deeper into the thick, awful air, she struggled to remember the flashes of her childhood that had come to her throughout the trip. The way he’d taught her to shoot. The smell of his beard when he’d come inside from the farm. The bulk of his arms and the plaid of a shirt he wore more days than not.
None of it sparked to life. None of it gave her the sweet ping of nostalgia she was hoping for. All of it felt foreign and dreamlike, as if it had happened to someone else and she’d heard about it only secondhand.
But here she was.
The ship came to rest with a thud, jarring her bottom against the metal bench. Then it came back up a few feet to hover, and the whole thing shook softly as the anchoring chains were detached and affixed to something outside. Finally, all was still.
Through the small lenses of her mask and through the great lens of the windscreens she could see lights strung together. The lights were steadier than mere torches, but they were fuzzy bubbles without too much definition, and she couldn’t discern their actual nature. They showed a sickly yellow-tinted world, and a wall made of logs that must’ve come from enormous trees-bigger than anything she’d ever seen down South. The wall disappeared in each direction, but that might’ve meant nothing. Through the fog, she could see perhaps only twenty yards, and those yards were none too clear.
Her chest hurt, and she felt quite distinctly breathless, as if she’d been running. She reached up to the mask to adjust it, or move it, but the sheriff stopped her hand.
She said, “Don’t. I know it takes some getting used to, but we’re down in the thick now. Once the anchor claws have been deployed, you can’t trust the air in here.” A pop and a sigh interrupted her. When they’d faded, she said, “And that was the sound of the bottom hatch opening.”
Mercy shook her head. “It just . . . it feels . . . I can’t . . .”
“I know, and I understand, but you can. You have to. Wear it or die, at least for now. But I promise, not for long.” Briar’s eyes behind her own mask tried to convey reassurance, and a lift to her cheeks implied a smile.
Mercy tried to smile back, and failed. Against her expectations and her will, her eyes filled up.
The sheriff leaned forward and all but whispered, “It’s all right, darling, I promise. Pull yourself together if you can, not because there’s anything wrong with crying, but because having a stuffy nose in one of these things is a goddamn nightmare.” She patted the young nurse’s arm, then squeezed it gently. “There’s time for crying later. All the crying you like, and all the crying you can stand. Come on now, though. Let’s get you unlatched. It’s time to go see your daddy.”
Mercy fumbled with her harness and extracted herself with difficulty. By the time she was finished, she noticed that the captain and the boys had already disappeared down the hatch, down into the fort.
Briar helped, untangling the last canvas strap and setting it back in place against the ship’s interior wall. She stood up straight and urged Mercy to do likewise, and she brushed a stray bit of travel dust off the taller woman’s shoulders. “You’re going to be just fine.”
“I don’t know. It’s been so long, and he’s never said a thing. We ain’t been close. I ain’t never heard from him, not since I was little.”
The sheriff nodded at all of this. She said, “I’m not sure what it’s worth to hear me say so, but he saved my life, when I first came down here. He’s got a reputation for it-for looking after newcomers and helping people learn their way. This is a dangerous place, but, your pa . . . he makes it less dangerous. People love him because he looks out for them. He looks out for all of us. When people thought he was dying, they moved heaven and earth to give him the last thing he wanted. The last thing he asked for.”
“You. And I know you figure that I don’t understand, and that maybe I’m just being nice to you. And that’s true, partly. I am trying to be nice to you. But you ought to know: I lost a husband too, a long time ago, before Zeke was even born. I also lost my father; and, like you and yours, we weren’t none too close. It’s a world of widows and orphans down here.” The sheriff looked away, out the massive windscreen, as if she could see past the fog, and past the log walls.
Then she finished, “But all the things we think we know about the folks who spawned us or raised us . . . well . . . sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes what we’ve seen isn’t all there is to know.”