Dreadnought Page 67

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 what-​now?”

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?”

“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 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.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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