Fill Your Hands!
“Mr. Carpenter!” the professor shouted as he clapped Dodger on the back. “That was amazing. You, my dear sir, are quite the sniper. What a steady hand. I haven’t seen shooting that fine in … well … never!”
“Thanks,” Dodger said.
“Not at all.” The professor proceeded to smooth down his rumpled clothes and pat a layer of dust from his coat. “Made a mess of the cab, but that’s certainly understandable. Nothing important broken I take it, Ched?”
“Nothing I’ll miss,” Ched said from his place at the helm. “Nicsh work. Even if you let one shlip pasht you.”
Dodger glanced to the retreating form of the bandit, as well as the three men dying in the dirt. “We can alert the law at Blackpoint about him and the others. They can deal with the mess.”
“Of course,” the professor said.
Ched raised a thin eyebrow. “You shure about that, Doc?”
“Certainly,” the professor said. “Run-of-the-mill outlaws? Let the authorities deal with it. That’s what they are paid for, yes?”
“Run of the mill?” Dodger asked. “What kind of outlaws do you usually get?”
Ched looked like he had a great deal to say on the matter, but the professor coughed and huffed the driver into silence.
“As I was saying,” the professor continued, “that was an amazing shootout. Yes! Amazing. You handled Boon’s guns with such poise and grace and …” The man paused as he caught sight of Dodger’s swollen wrist. “Oh my! But you’re injured!”
“It’s nothing,” Dodger said. “They just had a bit more kick than I expected.”
“Nonsense!” the professor shouted as he tenderly palpated Dodger’s wounds. “I think you may have broken this wrist.”
“It’s fine.” Dodger yanked his arm free and pulled his cuff over the swelling. There was no time for such nonsense. Not with unfinished business out there dying. He crossed the platform, heading off to the side and his business waiting beyond.
“Where are you going?” the professor asked.
“I want answers before those men bleed to death,” Dodger said. “I intend to go and get them.”
“Then I’m coming with you.”
“No, sir. You’re staying here, where it’s safe.”
Hopping down from the cab, Dodger tried to ignore the bite of his injured wrist. Before he got five steps away, a second huff sounded as someone dropped to the ground behind him.
Dodger turned to see the professor struggling to get to his feet. “I thought I said stay put.”
“I’m coming with you,” the professor said again.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Poppycock! What harm could three dying men possibly pose?”
Dodger didn’t have time to argue the point. He ran his good hand over his face and groaned. “Fine, just … just keep back until I say it’s safe to approach. Can you at least do that much?”
“Oh yes.” The professor nodded with glee. “Anything you say. You’re in charge.”
“I doubt that very much, sir.”
The first fatality was still lying in the train’s path. Dodger gave the corpse a cursory glance as he passed by, just to be sure the man was indeed dead. The body was more than dead; it was smashed to a pulp. Dodger had seen many a folk get in the way of a steam engine, but he had never seen this kind of result. The man was more soup than flesh, a sticky pool of viscous liquid baking in the midmorning sun. He reckoned it was the result of ending up under not just the train, but her unusual tracks as well.
“Oh dear,” the professor said from somewhere behind him. “That isn’t pretty.”
“Death never is,” Dodger said.
The owner’s horse stood by the next rider, leaning over the dying man as if waiting for him to get back on. It lifted its head and whinnied as Dodger approached.
“Its okay, girl,” Dodger said, patting the mare on the neck. The horse whimpered and nodded in greeting as Dodger stepped her away from her master. He then stooped over the one-armed bandit, reaching down to roll him onto his back so he could get a better look at the results of his deed. But before he could touch the man, a strange thing happened.
The corpse dissolved, right before Dodger’s eyes.
With a loud hiss, the body shrank and liquefied into a gushing stew, not unlike the fellow who was caught under the tracks. Green fluid poured from the cuffs and collar of the man’s clothes, until all that was left was a runny mess. Dodger looked up in time to see the other casualty, only a few feet away, undergoing the same process. The mare huffed and backed farther away, dismayed by the state of her rider. Dodger couldn’t blame her; he was pretty dismayed himself.
“What a curious effect,” the professor said.
“Curious?” Dodger asked. “You call that curious? He melted! They melted right in front of us, and you find it curious?”
“Yes. I must admit it’s not something I see very often.”
“Often! I’ve never seen it at all!”
“Pshaw.” The professor seemed indifferent to Dodger’s outcry. “Happens all the time.”
“All the time!” Dodger couldn’t help but parrot the professor’s crazy words. “All the time! People don’t just melt. It doesn’t happen all the time. It never happens.”
Ignoring Dodger’s worry, the professor and reached into his jacket and produced a small metal baton. With a few tugs the rod telescoped until it was several feet long. The professor then proceeded to poke at the remains of one rider with the rod, lifting the layers of fabric to eye what was underneath.
“It has been my experience,” the professor explained as he poked and prodded, “that this kind of reaction is, of course, atypical in a normal subject, but not in one who has an unstable genetic code. Yes, very unstable by the looks of them. I believe these are not, as we hoped, run-of-the-mill bandits. I’m afraid we are looking at men who have been subjected to genetic modifications.”
“You mean these men have been changed in some way?” Dodger asked, showing his intelligence without meaning to. “On a cellular level?”
The professor looked to Dodger with a raised eyebrow. “Yes. That’s precisely what I mean. They’ve been modified in some manner. And don’t get too close. This stuff quickly evolves into a highly acidic enzyme.”
The goop proved the professor’s point by eating its way through the dead man’s clothes.
“In what way do you think they were changed?” Dodger asked.
“There’s no way to know now. I guess I could take some samples back to the lab and take a look under the scope. Even then, it would be pure conjecture.”
“But you’re sure they’ve been modified?”
“Do you smell that?”
Dodger leaned over the runny corpse and breathed in. “Bread? I smell bread.”
“Yeast, actually. Yeast is what you smell. I find it tends to crop up a lot when I fiddle with this sort of experiment. For some reason, yeast just loves an altered genetic code. It’s rather like being a very bad cook. You try to blend a pig and a cow, and you end up with liquid bread. I thought I had succeeded, once, but in the end …” The professor let the idea drift away as he swabbed his baton on the dirt and returned it to its normal length.
Dodger furrowed his brow at the fluid remains. “What a way to go. If I had known they would do that … I might not have … I would have …”
“Don’t blame yourself. You couldn’t have known this would happen. No one could. Except for me, of course. Under normal circumstances, they surely have a much higher constitution than you or I. But very few beings can stand up to that kind of damage. A single bullet, perhaps. But not three at once.”
Dodger caught on to that idea and turned it about in his mind.
“This kind of reaction is why I don’t experiment on live subjects,” the professor said as he tucked the baton into his coat. “I mean, it’s one thing to reduce a slab of beef to a pool of goop, but it’s a tragedy that these men should suffer like that. I just wish others would see there is no wisdom in this kind of genetic …” He paused to look up to Dodger. “Mr. Carpenter, are you well?”
Dodger was well enough, he just wasn’t there. He was somewhere else. Another time, another place. He was reaching back, with his mind, to ten minutes earlier. Just before the shootout began. Just before Clemet took a chest full of gunshot. He was remembering what Dan of the red mask said before he shot his own man.
Raise your gun! Or I’ll turn you to soup.
“He knew,” Dodger said. “Dan knew they would end up like this. They all knew. They kept saying I wasn’t like them.” Another thought struck Dodger, driving him into action. He ran to the mare and calmed her into allowing him to mount.
“Mr. Carpenter?” the professor asked.
“Get back to the cab.” Dodger grabbed the reins of the dead man’s horse and swung onto her. “Tell Ched to meet me at the place where we first saw the riders.”
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Trying to save a man’s life.”
“Then you need to take me as well.” The professor held up his hand for a boost onto the mare. “Come now, I’m better equipped to do so than you. Ched will know to follow us.”
Dodger almost said no, but the man had a point. Reaching down, Dodger grabbed the professor’s arm and helped him onto the back of the saddle, then nudged the horse into movement with a kick. If the professor was right, then the man’s genetic enhancements might be enough to allow him to survive a single gunshot wound. If, perhaps, the bullet missed the his vital organs, then there was a very good chance he might still be alive.
Dodger prayed it was so, because he was pretty sure he knew who the man was, and why he knew so much about Sergeant Dodger.