Dreadnought Page 68

“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.”


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, “Don’t pay ’em no mind. People get funny about the crows in here, but they don’t ever bother anybody.”

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

The sheriff shrugged. “Somehow, the birds manage. But I couldn’t explain it. Come on now, I want to introduce you to somebody.”

Somebody proved to be another woman, somewhere between Mercy’s height and Briar’s, 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 wouldn’t 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 O’Gunning. She’s one of your father’s oldest friends, and she’s been helping Mr. Chow nurse him back to health.”

“Hello, Mrs. O’Gunning.”

“Missus! Don’t you bother with that, you darling you. I’m Lucy and you’re . . . Mercy, is that what she said?”

“It’s a nickname, but I think I’m keeping it.”

“Works for me!” she declared. “Come on back, now. Jeremiah’s 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 don’t know. Tickled pink’s probably not the right way to put it. I think he’s as nervous as can be, now that he knows he’s 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. “He’s not much of a talker, your dad. And now I guess he’s figured out that there’s a whole passel of stuff he should tell you. Since there’s time, and all.”

The nurse was almost glad to hear it, that she wasn’t the only one with a belly full of rocks.

Lucy O’Gunning 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 don’t 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? They’re propped all over the city, up past the wall so they can grab the good air.”

“No, I didn’t see them,” Mercy replied. She wondered what else she’d 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 wasn’t sure what to do with hers.

“Keep it,” Briar told her. “Put it in your bag. We’ve got plenty more, and you’ll be needing it later. We’ll get you some extra filters for it, too.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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