Authors: Regina Puckett
He looked up at the sky when Liberty gave it another worried glance. “Do you want to wait until the storm has passed before we go down?”
She shrugged. “No. The ships are secure, and we could all use a good soaking.” Liberty nodded toward Justice. He was at that moment almost over the edge again, trying to get a better view of something that had caught his eye. “Besides, this kid’s going to break his neck if we don’t go now.”
Mender laughed. “I guess you’re right. The truth is, I’m as excited as he is, so let’s go.”
Justice scampered first down the ladder with Mender following and Liberty the last to reach the ground. She noted that the other two were a little more solemn now they were down amongst the rubble. She knew how they felt. The disquieting atmosphere was unsettling. The distant view from the airship had a way of separating you from what had happened all those years ago, during the Great War, but on the ground she felt that all the spirits of the city’s innocent victims still kept guard over the city.
She turned to the now much more sober men. “The first rule is, no one, and I mean no one, goes off by themselves. The second rule is, we leave whatever we’re doing to get back onboard before it gets dark.” Liberty glanced over her shoulder. No matter how many times she came here she could never get over the feeling that someone was watching. She turned back and made certain to make eye contact with each of them. “If you take off and get lost then you can damn well find your own way back. This isn’t the kind of place you pussyfoot around. It will get you killed in a heartbeat.”
Mender elbowed her and nodded toward Justice. “You’re scaring the boy.”
“Good.” She elbowed him back. “You should be scared too.” She pointed at the chaos around them. “Hidden amongst all of this shit is a death trap waiting for you to make the wrong move. It’s been over eight hundred years since anyone has lived here. Don’t become so fascinated with the new and unknown that you forget to watch where you’re stepping. What looks like solid ground might not be.”
“Have you seen Justice?” Liberty set the crate of jars down and looked around the dilapidated warehouse. Most of the ceiling was now missing so she could clearly see that daylight was quickly disappearing. “Damn it to hell. How many times did I say not to wander off alone?” Her anger was all for show, so Mender wouldn’t know that Justice’s disappearance cared her half to death. What if the kid had gone off and gotten hurt? As soon as she found him, she was going to kill him.
Mender lowered his crate of odds and ends onto the ground before pushing his hair out of his eyes. He looked as exhausted and she felt. They had already made several trips, carrying crate after crate to their airships. He glanced around the enormous cavern before repeating the same question. “Where is that damn kid anyway? I swear he was right behind me just a second ago.” He looked around the darkening warehouse once more before releasing a pent-up breath. “If he’s gotten himself lost, I’m going to kill him too.”
She giggled, but sobered up quickly enough when Mender turned and glared at her. “I’m sorry. I giggle when I get nervous.”
He shook his head. “Well, what do we do? You told us we would have to find our own way back if we wandered off and got lost. Do we leave him to fend for himself tonight and come back in the morning?”
Liberty kicked her crate. “Hell, no. When did you ever start listening to anything I said anyway? You know I’m all bluster and hot air.” She waved toward the back of the warehouse. “I’ll start looking for him over there, and you go outside and see if he decided to leave without us.”
Mender clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t go get yourself killed.”
She nodded. “You neither.”
They both headed off but stopped when there was a loud bang, sounding like a pile of glass jars had crashed onto the warehouse floor. Without saying a word, they ran toward it.
Because of his longer legs, Mender soon outpaced Liberty. She picked up her speed when he disappeared around a row of racks. The warehouse was now almost completely dark, not a place she wanted to be in alone. When she rounded the corner and didn’t see either of them, she stopped and listened. It took a moment to hear anything over her labored breathing, but after concentrating, she finally caught the sound of running feet. Damn the man for leaving her behind. She was now going to kill both of them when she saw them again.
Liberty took off in pursuit, hoping to either catch up with Mender or find Justice. She stopped at the end of the racks and again listened. This time she called out, “Mender! Justice! Where the hell are you two?”
“Over here!” The reply echoed around the vast space.
Liberty guessed where the voice had come from and took off running that way. She soon saw Mender up ahead, bending over and shoving crates out of the way. She stopped, though, when she saw a movement out of the corner of her eye.
She wheeled around but almost tripped when a man-sized shape slipped back into the shadows just a few feet away. Liberty pulled the pistol from her pocket but kept it hidden in the folds of her skirt as she inched toward where she had last seen the shape.
Mender must have noticed because he stopped. “Justice is under here! I need help getting him out.”
Liberty stared into the darkness for a moment. “I’ll be right there,” she called back, but an uneasy feeling had settled about her. She peered into the darkness again before the knowledge that her brother needed help made her slip the pistol back into her pocket and rush over to join Mender.
“Right in the middle of all this mess.” He picked up another crate and threw it to one side. “Watch the glass. It’s everywhere.”
From where Liberty stood, all she could see was a bare arm. It wasn’t moving. That was enough for her to throw caution to the wind and grab the nearest object, throwing it behind her in a frenzy. It was completely dark by the time they finally reached Justice and it was impossible to see how badly hurt he was, as he was in covered in broken glass and blood.
She knelt next to him, licked the tips of two of her fingers and held them in front of his mouth. She could only just feel a whisper of breath, but at least it was there. “He’s breathing.” She looked over at Mender. “What do we do? Will we hurt him more if we try carrying him back to Airus?” Panic made it impossible for her to think clearly so she placed all her faith and hope in Mender’s hands.
He carefully wiped shards of glass away from Justice’s face and neck. “I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. I don’t know.”
A shuffling noise behind made them both turn. A gaunt man appeared from the shadows. Liberty pulled her pistol out and aimed it at him.
He held his hands out in front of him but didn’t stop. His attention seemed focused on Justice, not them. “Put that away. There’s no time for such nonsense.”
Mender placed a hand on her shoulder but she didn’t put the gun away, only dropped her arm so it hung by her side. “What do you want, mister?”
The emaciated old man stepped out of the shadows but then stopped, as if uncertain about Liberty and the gun. He seemed satisfied that she wasn’t about to shoot an old man and moved forward, kneeling down beside Justice. He felt for a pulse and then ran both hands down Justice’s arms, along his legs and then up his spine to his head. Finally, he turned to Mender. “I think it will be okay if we move him to my place.”
“And where’s that, Old Man?”
The stranger turned to Liberty. “Move your hands to his mid-section, and when I say ‘lift’, we’ll all lift at the exact same time.” He turned to Mender. “You’re stronger than I am so you’ll carry his head and shoulders. I’ll carry his feet.”
Mender didn’t move but again asked, “And where is that going to be to, Old Man?”
“The name is Patch, and I’ll tell you where as soon as we’ve picked him up.”
Patch’s place was in the subbasement of the jar warehouse. Even with all three of them carrying Justice it had taken every ounce of energy to make it down the long flights of stairs. Mender and Liberty were already near exhaustion from their day of carrying loads of jars to their airships, so it hadn’t taken much to sap the rest of their strength.
While Patch worked on Justice, Liberty walked around the basement trying to take her mind off her brother’s condition. Justice’s complexion was pale beneath all the blood and his skin cold and clammy. She wanted to help, but when Patch asked her and Mender to give him room to work, that left her with nothing to do but walk between row after row of assorted strange objects.
The amount of light shining in the basement dazzled and amazed her. It glowed from hundreds of tiny glass containers, each on wires hanging from the high ceiling. The sight was so beautiful she couldn’t stop staring and wasn’t content until she’d tracked down how it was powered. Following the strands of wires to a back corner, Liberty eventually found a large rotating machine into which all the wires vanished. She examined the huge machine but had never seen anything like it before. Its inner workings remained a mystery.
Patch’s place resembled a workshop more than a living area. It was littered from floor to ceiling with strange inventions. She had no idea what most of the bizarre objects were supposed to be, but soon became engrossed in studying his collection of robots. Some were as large as an average man but most were about the same size as Boy. A few were even smaller.
Although eager to keep out of Patch’s way, Liberty couldn’t help but walk back to where he sat, cleaning Justice’s wounds. She hadn’t got close but Patch still glanced up as though she were interrupting him. She took the hint and wandered off again around the room a few times, repeatedly looking over to see if Patch had finished. Mender had found a spot out of the way, across the room on the floor, but even though he said nothing, he never took his eyes off what Patch was doing.
Totally helpless, Liberty felt like throwing up. What if he died? She should have made certain he was with them at all times. She was a terrible sister. Her father had taught her how to survive but he’d offered no words of wisdom on how to take care of others.
She didn’t hear Mender’s approach and was surprised when he spoke. “That little guy looks like Boy. I wonder if Patch built them all?”
“How’s Justice? Will he live?” Liberty held her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers. It was impossible to read Mender’s expression, but at least he nodded.
“Patch thinks so.”
Liberty reached out and touched his arm. She lowered her voice. “But how does he know if he will or not?”
Mender covered her hand with his. “He says his father, and his father, and his father before him were all doctors. He’s been trained but hasn’t had any use for the knowledge the last few years. It seems that years ago the city had several hundred people living here, but food was so scare they all left in search of better scratchings elsewhere.”
She removed her hand from his and looked over at Patch. He was still busy tending to Justice, paying them no attention. “I wonder why he didn’t go with them?”
“I suspect he prefers tinkering with his inventions down here than interacting with real humans.” He looked overhead at the lights. “I don’t know what these things are but maybe he would be willing to install some on our airships. Having a way to see in the dark would come in real handy.”
A low moan interrupted them and Liberty ran over to the still prone figure of Justice.
Patch didn’t look up. “No broken bones and he’s regaining consciousness. Once he’s able to answer a few questions, I’ll know for certain, but I feel confident your friend will make a full recovery.”
Patch looked puzzled.
“Justice is my brother.”
It was nerve racking waiting for Justice to open his eyes but Liberty couldn’t stop smiling the moment he did. She volunteered to sit up with him during the rest of the night, to keep him awake while Mender and Patch got some sleep. Liberty asked Justice questions about his life, just to keep him talking really, and gladly told him anything he wanted to know about herself.
“How’s our patient this morning?”
Liberty patted Justice’s hand. “I think he’s all talked out.”
Justice’s face was a mass of cuts and bruises but his smile still dazzled. “My sister never shuts up. I’m about crossed-eyed, but she won’t let me shut my eyes for more than two seconds before she’s jabbing me in the shoulder, telling me to wake up. Can you make her go away?”
Patch peered into Justice’s eyes before turning to her and smiling. “I certainly will.”
Liberty and Justice looked at each other in confusion for a moment but then laughed.
Patch rocked back on his heels. “I’m not certain what’s so funny. Go rest on your airship, I’ll keep an eye on Justice until you return.”
“I’m fine,” Liberty said. “I don’t need any sleep.” She appreciated Patch’s help but was still uncertain about leaving Justice here, alone with him.
“He needs sleep and so do you. He should be able to return to the airship by the time you wake up.”
Liberty wanted to argue but the look Patch leveled made her hesitate, so she patted Justice’s hand and went to wake Mender. “Get up, Sleepyhead. Let’s go check on our airships. With any luck the storm didn’t blow them away.”
Instead of heading off to bed, she checked to make certain Airus hadn’t been damaged by the storm the previous day. Fortunately, even though she had had to search high and low for her hat and goggles, everything seemed fine. Even then, Liberty still had a difficult time winding down, Justice’s injuries continuing to worry her. To help settle her nerves, she rewound Boy as she talked to him. “Justice got hurt yesterday.” She sighed. “I can’t believe I let someone else get hurt. I’m beginning to think I was better off before.” She patted his head. “At least then, if anyone got hurt because I wasn’t paying attention, it would only have been me.”
Liberty sat on the edge of the bed. She rubbed the center of her chest, as if that would somehow help make the pain go away. “How can I ever hope to keep Justice safe? I can’t leave him locked in the storage closet all the time.” She closed her eyes and wished she could go to a time before she’d met Boy, Mender and Justice. She wished she could somehow un-love them all. Her father had been right. Loving only led to trouble and heartbreak.