He seized in a wild spasm, shuddering all over, clutching his chest as a frozen fist squeezed his heart. Ice raced along his veins, seemingly spreading everywhere at once, until his entire body came over with a bone cold chill. Warmth fled his body, leaving him frozen to the core. The beds of his fingernails went blue. His skin took on a pale shadow of its usual healthy tone. Dodger exhaled, watching his breath curl away from his mouth in chilled tendrils.
On the heels of this iciness there came a sudden heat so strong he broke out in an immediate sweat. Dodger struggled to catch his breath as his now overheated heart galloped in under the strain of the sudden fever. Moisture popped up along his forehead, streaking down his face and into his eyes. His blood threatened to boil away right in his veins. He was almost sure he could hear steam escaping his ears, or maybe that was just the boilers coming to prime.
This heat passed just as quickly as the cold, leaving in its wake a sense of utter and complete wellbeing. The feeling was almost foreign it had been so long since he had experienced such a sensation. Dodger, for the first time in many, many, many moons, felt just plain old good.
Good? Hell, he felt great!
“Well?” the professor asked. “How was it?”
“How was it?” Dodger asked, then laughed aloud. “I feel twenty years younger. I feel like I could take on five men. Ten men!”
“Don’t get too excited. That sensation will wear off in a few moments. Number eight will give you a slight energy boost for a few more hours, but that overwhelming sense of vigor is temporary. How is your hand?”
Dodger raised his right hand, and just as Boon and the professor both suggested, he was indeed surprised. The sprain? Gone. The bruising? Gone. The ache? Gone. It was as if he had never injured it to begin with. No, it was better than that. It was like someone had given him a whole new hand.
“Excellent,” the professor said, without waiting for Dodger’s verbal verdict. “Now, I suggest you eat something. You are hungry, yes?”
At the mention of food, Dodger’s belly rumbled. Hungry didn’t begin to describe the empty feeling in his stomach. Where he was just hungry before from skipping lunch, Dodger was now famished. “I must confess I’m a slight bit peckish.” His stomach rolled again, filling the cab with an embarrassing growl. “Okay, I’m ravenous.”
“I knew you would be. That’s why I had Feng prep a meal.” The professor snapped his fingers at Feng, who produced a basket from the folds of his robe. “Increased hunger is a side effect of the compound. Well, one of them, at least.”
“One of them?” Of course there would be side effects. Everything came at a price. “How many side effects are there?”
The professor tapped his chin as his lips moved, counting in silence.
Dodger waved his hands in the air. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
Boon whispered, Few of them are severe, while the rest are just minor annoyances. I’ll warn you if I spot the signs of a side effect arising.
“Thanks,” Dodger whispered.
Not at all. That’s what partners are for, yes?
Dodger nodded, though his jury was still out on the whole partner thing.
“You’ll enjoy Feng’s food,” the professor said. “He always seems to know just what to feed a man. No matter the situation.”
Feng nodded as he handed off the basket to Dodger, and Dodger thanked the man in his native tongue. Inside the basket were a selection of meats and cheeses, fruit and bread and a canteen of fresh water. Nothing too heavy. A good meal to partake before a brawl.
“Well then,” the professor said as he rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get this train underway. Lelanea awaits her rescue. Ched! To Herman’s Cap!”
“Hermit’s Gap,” Dodger said.
“What he said.”
Ched was far ahead both of them, flipping switches and pulling levers before the first request was out of the professor’s mouth. Within seconds the train lurched into life in a slow chug. Hauling the whole line, it would take her much longer to reach top speed than when she was bobtailing it across the open plains.
The professor snapped his fingers at the cook. “Come along Feng. I have another task for you.” He slipped out of the engine car, with the Celestial hot on his heels.
“You mind tellin’ me where we’re headin’?” Ched asked.
“Twenty miles, due north,” Dodger said. “It’s surrounded by about a dozen boulders. You can’t miss it. Just look for the bumps on the horizon and follow.”
“How closhe you want me to bring her in?”
“A half mile or so. I’m sure the messenger informed his leader to expect the entire train, but still, I don’t want to spook them.”
Dodger looked down at his hand again, still awestruck with wonder at the amazing effects of compound number eight. “Tell me, are the contents of all of those vials capable of feats like this?”
Some do far more amazing things. While some do far worse.
“Worse? Like what?”
“You don’t wanna know,” Ched said.
True enough. Dodger probably didn’t really want to know. But there was something Dodger was just dying to learn. “Why can you hear …” he let the idea fade, unsure if he could put his question into words.
The driver glanced over his boney shoulder. “Are you trying to ashk me shomethin’?”
He’s curious about your condition, Boon said.
“Ish he?” Ched raised his eyebrows with a chuckle as he returned his attention to the helm. He jostled a knob, but said nothing more on the matter.
“Yes, he is,” Dodger said.
“Then why don’t he jusht ashk?”
So Dodger did. “Why are you like that?”
“Like what? Exshactly?”
Dodger groaned. Was nothing easy with these folks? “Why are you like you are? Why can you hear Boon speak when no one else can? Why are you so … you know… emaciated? You carry the scent of a corpse but … I mean you’re not … really … are you?”
“Not what?” Ched laughed again as the unanswered question lingered between them.
For the love of God, Chester, just tell him already. Stop fiddle farting around. It’s been troubling the lad since he laid eyes on you. If he’s going to work with us then he deserves the truth.
“The truth?” Ched asked as he spun his chair about to gaze upon Dodger. “The Doc shpoke the truth. I’m like thish becaush I’m a shtupid, shtupid, shtupid man.”
Yes, and aside from that.
“What elsh ish there?”
Am I going to be the one who has to spell it out? Fine then. He wants to know if you’re really dead or not.
Ched tipped his head to Dodger. “Do you want the short ansher?”
“I’m not dead,” Ched said.
Dodger exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “I’m sorry to even ask, it’s just … well, you seem … umm …”
“Yeah. Sort of. No offense meant.”
“None taken, becaush I’m not dead.”
“Sharge, I’m not-dead,” Ched repeated one more time.
Dodger heard the cadence of the phrase this third time around. There was a distinct trip of the tongue amid the word ‘not’ and the word ‘dead,’ a half pause that implied a connection of sorts between the terms. A hyphen, perhaps, or even that the two words were in fact one very long word.
He’s not-dead, Dodger. But he’s not alive, either.
There it was again. Not-dead.
The ‘not’ part made sense be cause the man couldn’t be dead. Even if he smelled dead. He also looked the part of a corpse; skeletal and stiff, shrunken and shriveled. But on the other hand he was up walking and talking and driving the train. And drinking. In fact, he smelled as much of whiskey than he did of death. He was pickled in the stuff.
“I don’t think I understand,” Dodger confessed. “How can you be …?”
“Not-dead?” Ched asked.
“Well, now, tish a mighty long shtory, Sharge.”
No it’s not, interrupted Boon. It takes about ten minutes at the most to share. He just likes to drag it out and fill it full of unnecessary details and unwarranted drama.
“Becaush that’sh how you’re shupposhed to tell a sthory, you jackash.” Ched sighed and scratched his dry skin as he measured Dodger with sallow and sunken eyes. “I’ll make you a deal. You bring our Lelanea back shafely, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
“That’s not much of a deal for you,” Dodger said. “I was planning on doing that anyways. How about I swap a tale for it?”
“Shwap a shtory? About yourshelf?”
“Sure. Ask me anything you like.”
Ched considered this a moment, then said, “Tempting ash that ish, I think I’ll wait.”
“Why? You’ve nothing to gain. I was going after her anyways.”
“‘Cause ain’t no ushe wastin’ shuch a good shtory if you’re jusht gonna go and get yourshelf kilt. No shir. I think I’ll wait and shee what happensh.”
And Dodger supposed he couldn’t blame the not-dead man for that.