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Twenty-two

Dreadnought

By the time Mercy had unloaded herself from the Naamah Darling, Zeke and Huey were nowhere to be seen. The captain was talking with a man-Petey, presumably-who was holding a flare on a pike. All around her, the world was latticed with lights that hummed and buzzed against the fog; and above them she could see the glittering eyes of birds-long rows of them, seated atop the sharpened ends of the log walls that were clearly failing to deter them from sitting there.

Briar Wilkes saw her looking at them and said, Dont pay em no mind. People get funny about the crows in here, but they dont ever bother anybody.

I thought nobody could live in here, breathing this air?

The sheriff shrugged. Somehow, the birds manage. But I couldnt explain it. Come on now, I want to introduce you to somebody.

Somebody proved to be another woman, somewhere between Mercys height and Briars, and wider than the both of them without appearing fat. Her hair was dark but tipped with gray, and one sleeve of her dress was pinned up to her chest so it wouldnt flutter emptily. She had only one arm, and that arm moved strangely. It was covered in one long leather glove.

Vinita-I mean, Mercy-this is Lucy OGunning. Shes one of your fathers oldest friends, and shes been helping Mr. Chow nurse him back to health.

Hello, Mrs. OGunning.

Missus! Dont you bother with that, you darling you. Im Lucy and youre . . . Mercy, is that what she said?

Its a nickname, but I think Im keeping it.

Works for me! she declared. Come on back, now. Jeremiahs going to be tickled pink!

Mercy murmured, Really?

And although Lucy had already turned, ready to lead the way down and under, she stopped and laughed. Oh, I dont know. Tickled pinks probably not the right way to put it. I think hes as nervous as can be, now that he knows hes going to hang around awhile. The idea of saying a quick good-bye looked good to him, but . . . She trailed off, then waved her one arm to draw Mercy and Briar forward, back into the fog and into a corridor leading to a long set of stairs that led down into a very black darkness. Her voice echoed around in the stairwell. Hes not much of a talker, your dad. And now I guess hes figured out that theres a whole passel of stuff he should tell you. Since theres time, and all.

The nurse was almost glad to hear it, that she wasnt the only one with a belly full of rocks.

Lucy OGunning led Mercy and Briar down to a door with a rubber seal around it, which she opened with a latch that was built into the wall beside it. Be quick, now, she said. She led the way; then they both dashed inside behind her. The door closed with a sucking snap, and a glowing green light along the floor showed another portal immediately ahead. Lucy told Mercy, One more door, and then we get to the filters. The more barriers we can put between ourselves and that air up topside, the better.

So the next door opened and closed, and so did the subsequent two, which had panting filters made of sturdy cloth and seals of wax or rubber around all the edges. The underside breathed in long, hard gusts that came and went, inhaling and exhaling. Off in the distance, Mercy could hear the rolling, mechanical thunder of machinery working hard.

Briar told her, Those are the pumps. They keep the air moving from up over the wall and down to us. They dont run all the time, though. Just a few hours, most days. Did you see the air tubes, when we were coming in? The yellow ones? Theyre propped all over the city, up past the wall so they can grab the good air.

No, I didnt see them, Mercy replied. She wondered what else shed missed, but kept such wonderings to herself as she followed down the tunnels, hallways, and unfinished paths that wound through the underground.

Once we get on the other side of the next seal, you can take the mask off, Lucy informed her. And, indeed, in a moment they all peeled the things off their faces, stashing them under arms or in bags, except for Mercy, who wasnt sure what to do with hers.

Keep it, Briar told her. Put it in your bag. Weve got plenty more, and youll be needing it later. Well get you some extra filters for it, too.

How much farther are we going?

Lucy said, Not much. Were going down into Chinatown, because thats where the only decent doctor is for a hundred miles. And yes, she snapped before anyone could contradict her, in case theyd been planning on it, Id count Tacoma in that, too. Anyway, we dont have much farther.

Seattle was a great rabbit warren of a city, there under the earth. In some places it looked almost normal: Mercy walked wide-eyed past rows of apartments and rooms filled with cargo, all of them perfectly ordinary except for the lack of windows and the persistent use of false lights and candles stashed in every corner. The whole underground smelled damp and mossy, like a hole dug in a yard, since thats what it was.

They passed curious men and no other women, which Mercy noticed right away. But all the other residents nodded, dipped their hats, and offered friendly greetings. When Mercy looked perplexed at this, Lucy explained that everyone knew who Mercy was, and why she was coming. Mercy didnt know how to feel about this, but she tried to be polite back, even as she was ushered along. Always down stairs and up steps with rails, or no rails, and down corridors with floors of polished marble or no floors at all-just damp earth like a root cellar.

She found herself imagining what it looked like, up there in the city itself. She occupied her thoughts with speculation about the roving dead who shed been warned roamed the streets, and considered that they very likely looked much like the afflicted Mexicans whod nearly brought down two trains in the Utah pass. And just about the time she was out of things to wonder about, she became aware that all the men she was passing were Chinamen like Fang, and they also wore their hair in ponytails or braids shaved back away from their foreheads. They regarded her with curiosity but no malice, and they did not speak to her, though some of them hailed Lucy with a few quick words that she didnt understand.

Finally. Inevitably.

They arrived at a door at the very moment an aged Chinaman was exiting from it, trailed by gruff swearwords and a general air of aggravation in the room beyond. And I dont need that goddamn potion. It tastes like shit, and Im just not going to drink it anymore!

The old man rolled his eyes, making Mercy think that everyone everywhere who had ever had a grouchy patient must make that same face. He said something to Lucy, who nodded.

The one-armed woman lowered her voice and said, Dont judge him too harsh. Hes lived hard, and nearly died to save the lives of strangers. And you were the only thing he wanted, when we wouldve done anything to make him happy. So I want you to know that Im glad you came, and even impressed that you came. Because not every daughter wouldve done it, and I think it speaks well of you. Briar, honey?

Lucy?

Its time for us to go.

Mercy wanted to argue with them, to demand that they accompany her, to accuse them bitterly of leaving her just when she needed them most.

But she didnt.

And they didnt stay.

They slipped away, and back, these two women whom shed known for not even a day. One old enough to be her mother; one an older sister, or a young aunt. Her only connection to anything above, and her only way out if she refused to step through that cracked-open door.

She put a hand on it. Took a deep breath of air that smelled and tasted stale, and faintly like sulfur. Pushed the door an inch, then stalled. Recovered her willpower. Pushed it far enough to admit her.

She stepped into the doorway of a room with all the fixtures of a hotel. A basin stood against a far wall; a dresser with a mirror squatted beside it. The walls themselves had been painted with cheerful stripes in a bright red that was almost orange, and a deep blue that was almost purple. These were illuminated by a pair of gas lanterns on the end tables on either side of the bed.

On this bed was a man half-propped up against a mountain of pillows, and looking quite peevish about it.

He lounged there with one leg braced up and reinforced in a cast composed of wood stays and canvas. Around his torso was a similar set of stays, nearly corsetlike, and Mercy understood at a glance that some of those ribs had been broken, and that his chest had been carefully immobilized to keep the pointed bits of bone from doing damage to his lungs or other organs. She took all this in and admired it, even approving of the partial hat he wore over an otherwise shaven and naked head. She understood that this, too, was a bandage, and that some head wound mustve rendered the covering a requirement.

It was easier for her to see him that way, as a patient.

Shed dealt with many patients on many beds, and there were a handful of types, but no real mysteries to any of them. She could look him up and down and gather that hed survived some hideous trauma, and even glean the nature of if she looked closely enough: A badly broken leg; compound fracture, no doubt. An assortment of broken ribs. A head wound that mustve gone down to the bone and might even have splintered the hard bits beneath the skin. The telltale pockmarks and seams that showed where stitches had been removed, and where a cut or a puncture had conclusively agreed to remain closed.

But it was harder to look at the man and know she hadnt seen him in so very long. It was tough to see that battered face with the flattened nose (broken long ago, she could tell, as easily as if he wore a sign) and the broad cheekbones that shed inherited, giving her the same wide face that looked almost square in the right light. And it was a struggle to meet his eyes, which were watching her back from underneath fluffy eyebrows shot through with the first threads of silver. One had a scar that cut across it, healed years ago, by the look of it.

She took all this in, and she stood in the doorway without knowing what to say, or how to move, or if she should take up the chair that his physician had used to examine him, there beside the bed.

He took her in, too, and did not say anything either, did not seem to know if he should invite her inside or ask her to leave. His stubbly face was turned on the pillow, pressing against it so he could get a look at her. He cleared his throat with a wet, weak sound that probably wasnt the noise hed meant to make.

Finally, he said, Nita? Both syllables cracked against his uncertainty.

She clutched the doors latch and stood in its frame as if it were a magical space that would protect her from whatever happened next. But she replied: Daddy?


Twenty-one | Dreadnought |



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