In which Dodger faces the ire of the Pack.
Twenty miles due north of the small town of Blackpoint lay the odd outcropping of rocks known to the locals as Hermit’s Gap. Named such because the place tended to attract the loneliest kinds of folks; those either looking to escape the pressures of modern society, or those seeking to escape the laws of said society.
A collection of boulders and mounds made up the location, scattered around a circular depression in the earth. There are those that say this depression is the leftover footprint of some great beast that walked the Earth centuries before mankind, and that the surrounding landscape are what’s left of its bones. There are those that say it is the site of a fallen star, long since removed from its impact crater by unknown hands. Then there are those that say the depression was made by the manual efforts one Jeff Brackett, who, after inheriting the barren patch of land back in 1838, became obsessed with the notion that there was gold just under the surface, and spent the last two years of his life digging a hole a hundred feet wide and four foot deep into the rocky soil, shifting the excess soil and rocks and boulders to the outside until he finally died of a heart attack from the effort.
Those folks would be right.
Dodger chanced upon the Gap but once in all the time he had lived in and around Blackpoint. It held little interest for him because there wasn’t much to explore, just a shallow hole in the ground and a bunch of boring rocks. Through the SPECS, however, Dodger found that quite a bit had changed since his last visit. The Gap, once a barren and shunned landmark, was now host to a number of tents, as well as a number of men.
Several two-man tents littered the depression, with a huge makeshift pavilion set up in the center. Four pairs of guards patrolled the Gap’s borders, while the rest of the men moved about on various tasks, each one focused on their job at hand whether it was washing dishes or cleaning weapons. To the back, away from the daily grind, sat a larger tent, heavily guarded. Dodger supposed that was his destination. And he guessed the two men approaching the Sleipnir on foot were meant to lead him there.
“Must be the welcoming party,” Dodger mumbled to himself as he put away the SPECS and readied to leave.
“Let me send Torque instead,” the professor said. “He’s fully expendable. No one will miss him. I certainly won’t.”
“They asked for me, sir. We should follow their request.”
“And you won’t reconsider arming yourself?”
“No. I don’t want to do anything that would compromise their trust.”
“Trust? These are the same men who opened fire on you! And don’t forget that you killed three of their men.”
“Yes and their leader could have just sent a passel of men to kill me in return, but he didn’t. I suspect he wants something more than just revenge for his fallen men. I won’t find out what it is if I go in there guns ablazin’.”
“Who’s talking guns? Come now, we have plenty of time for me to arm you with a plethora of hidden weaponry. No one will know you are armed until the need arises. A pressure triggered dagger in your shoe? A spring loaded poison dart in your hat, perhaps? Just say the word and I’ll make it happen. Torque! Get out here! We have an emergency fitting!”
“Whoa there, Doc. Such gadgets are tempting, but in the absence of a pistol I’m used to relying on my fists. If you put a dagger in my shoe, I’m liable to just cut my own toes off.”
“Doc, I know you’re worried about her, and I promise I will bring her back to you safe and sound. But we have to act now. There’s not as much time as you think.”
“I thought we had until sundown?”
“That as it may be, but those two men approaching are going to want to talk to me a lot sooner than that.”
The professor snatched up Dodger’s SPECS and looked out toward the Gap. “Son of a … I suppose they don’t want to waste any time.” He lowered the goggles and eyed Dodger with worry. “What will you do?”
“I’m going to head on out and meet them before they get too close. I’ll try to keep them back from the line, but just in case they have other plans, Ched is on the roof with a pair of goggles and a rifle.” As was Boon, if either of them bothered to obey Dodger’s commands.
“Did he say which rifle?”
“Something he called a Long Shot.”
The professor seemed to brighten at the name. “Yes, the Long Shot should prove useful here, I would think. Ched is average in his aim, but he should do well considering he has such a long range.”
“How long is that?”
This stalled Dodger in his tracks. “Did you say three miles?”
“Yes. The Long Shot was Boon’s idea. The rifle is heavily modified as is the ammunition. The combination results in at least a three mile range of fire, sometimes four if the wind is in your favor. Of course accuracy is difficult at that range, but considering you have such a range advantage on your target, one is left with plenty of time to draw a bean.”
“Sir? I may not need your weaponry just yet, but I do sort of have a favor to ask.”
The professor beamed at the chance to help. “Anything! Just ask and you shall have it.”
“Sir, well, I was thinking … do you suppose it might be possible to help those men?”
“Help them?” The beam dimmed. “In what way?”
“Could you, you know, do whatever it is you do and make them men again?”
The professor blinked and stammered, “I … well … I’m not … I’m not sure. I could certainly try. If that’s what you really want.”
“I do, sir. If that’s okay with you.”
“I suppose so, but may I ask why? Those men are threatening my niece’s life. They fired on you without provocation. They would shoot you soon as look at you.”
“No. Those men are only acting out because they don’t have any other way left to them. What’s happened to them isn’t right. You know it as well as I do. They fought for their country and this is how we repay them? By letting some sick man twist their bodies and turn them into beasts?”
“I see your point. I should also let you know that they are much worse off than just their appearance.”
“In what way?”
The professor glanced about a moment, then met Dodger’s eyes again. “Their genetic code is highly unstable. Before much longer, they will begin to break down into their base elements without the necessity of trauma.”
“You mean they’ll just melt on their own. Into those puddles of goop.”
With a grim frown, the professor nodded.
“How much longer do they have?” Dodger asked.
“There is no way to know without testing one of them,” the professor said. “If I were to venture a guess, based on the speed of deterioration we have already witnessed, I would say no more than a few weeks. Maybe even days. To be honest, I am surprised they’ve lasted so long.”
“Then if I can go in there and, well, convince them that you can help them, can make them men again?”
“I can at the very least try. And if not, there is a good chance I might be able to stabilize them.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“Years of experience, my boy. Years and years of terrible, wonderful experience.” The professor flashed him a weak smile. “Regardless of how you view yourself, you’re a good man, Mr. Dodger. I can feel it in my bones.”
Dodger didn’t know what to say to that.
“Is there nothing else I can do for you?” the professor asked.
“Thanks, but no.” Dodger unbuckled the hostler, slipping Boon’s babies from his waist and handing the belt off to the professor.
Taking the weapons, the professor maintained his weak smile, but the effort of it showed.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Dodger said. “I’ll bring your niece back safe and sound. Keep watch for us, and the moment you see us break from the camp, get the train in gear and come pick us up. If there is any trouble on your end, anything at all, give a whistle. I can’t promise I’ll be able to come a runnin’, but at least it will let me know the train is compromised.”
“Yes, of course.” The professor clutched the guns to him. “Hurry back.”
Dodger drew a deep breath and took off on foot for the camp. He was a few feet away when the professor called out behind him.
Dodger looked back. “Yes, sir?”
“Be careful with Lelanea. She’s …” the professor paused, as if searching for the right words to describe his young niece, before he finished with, “just be careful. Please. She’s a very special young woman. And … and she’s all the family I have left.”
Dodger turned again and took off to meet with the men approaching the line.
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