The Battle Ahead
The Battle Ahead
In which Dodger takes a moment to prepare.
With what it took to prime the engines, then another twenty minutes to make the ride out to the Gap, Dodger had some time on his hands. Time he wanted to use to prepare. The professor, however, wanted to use the time to introduce his new head of security to the rest of his glorious train, which sort of took Dodger by surprise. The man seemed almost unmoved by his niece’s abduction, obsessed instead with showing off his gadgets and gears.
“Aren’t you the least bit worried about your niece?” Dodger asked.
“Lelanea can handle herself,” the professor said. “I know women are labeled the weaker sex, but trust me when I say this: before it is said and done, those men will regret their choice of abductees. They would have been better off taking Torque. Or me. Preferably Torque. Now, let me show you around your new home.”
“Perhaps later, sir,” Dodger said. “If it’s okay with your driver, I’ll just stay up here for a bit. I find the pulse of the engine helps me think.”
“Fine by me,” Ched said as he watched the boilers for the first signals of available power. “Make yourshelf at home. I don’t have many sheats, but you can park your rear on my cashe there.” He motioned to the trunk tucked under the hammock.
“Thanks,” Dodger said, and made himself comfortable on the wooden footlocker.
The professor stuck out his lower lip and whined, “But there’s so much to show you and-”
“Cut him shome shlack, Doc,” Ched interjected. “He jusht needsh shome time to reflect. You remember how Boon alwaysh shet himshelf off for contemplashion before a big show down.”
“You’re right, I suppose.” The mention of their deceased crewmember seemed to bring the professor back to the reality of the situation. “Are you really planning on going in unarmed?”
“I think its best if we play by their rules,” Dodger said. “At least for now.”
Dittmeyer motioned to Dodger’s wrist. “At least let me treat that injury. You’ll be foolish to shuffle off into a scuffle with that kind of sprain.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Dodger said.
Though, truth be told, the last thing he wanted was for that doctor to lay a finger on him. Dodger had treated and wrapped the sprain himself, and he didn’t need or want a second opinion. But he was willing to do anything just to shut the man up for five minutes.
The professor unwrapped Dodger’s shoddy bandage, tossing the thing to the side with a grunt of disgust. He then palpated the injury, tenderly, watching as Dodger winced or hissed in response to his probing fingers. “It’s not nearly as bad as it looks. I think a number eight should do. Be back in a jiffy.” The professor slipped out of the cab sliding the door closed behind him.
“What’s a number eight?” Dodger asked.
Ched kept an eye on the steam gauge, but didn’t answer. Whether he was genuinely busy or just ignoring Dodger, it was hard to tell.
Boon asked, Are you sure you want to go in with no weapon?
Dodger nodded rather than answer verbally in front of Ched.
You realize if the guns stay behind, so do I. I won’t be able to help.
Dodger shrugged. What could he do? They had him over a barrel. It wouldn’t be the first time he went into a fight empty handed. Wouldn’t be the last, either.
“Is the Doc always this excited?” Dodger asked, testing Ched’s attention again.
“No,” Ched said.
That was good to know. A chatty boss was one thing, but a high-strung one tended to be more trouble than they were usually worth. Dodger breathed a sigh of relief.
That was, until Ched added, “Ushually, hesh much worsh. I think hish worry for Missh Lelanea is curbing his enthushiashm a bit.”
“Worried?” Dodger asked. “He didn’t seem worried.”
“He ish. That’sh the way the Britsh show their conshern. By flappin’ their gumsh about anything but the isshue at hand.”
“I heard tale he was British. And of course his accent gives him away.”
“Acshentsh will do that. Shome folksh brand of shpeech will give them away every time I shuposshe.”
Dodger couldn’t help a small smile. “How are the boilers coming along?”
Ched tapped the gauge. “Almosht ready. Another five minutesh and we should be under way.”
Damn, Dodger thought. The driver only just lit the things a few minutes beforehand. “They heat up that fast?”
“The Doc’sh shoupsh ‘em up sho they heat shuper fasht. Fifteen minutesh ish about average. But if I coax her jusht right, I can get her hot in ten.”
“That’sh nothing. The Doc’s cooked up shome kind of additive when we really need to haul ash. It lowersh the boiling point of the water sho we prime in about shixty sheconds.”
“Sixty seconds! That’s impossible.”
“Imposshible? You don’t know the Doc very well then. Nothingsh imposshible for him.”
Dodger couldn’t argue with that. “If you can prime that fast, why not use it all of the time?”
“Becaush the quick-prime chemichalsh are exshpenshive. And in the long run we ush almosht ten timesh the water of a normal run. The tanksh boil off the water fashter than we can ushe the shteam. Shee?”
It took Dodger a few seconds to translate the wild flurry of hisses. “Ten times as much makes for a lot of stops, doesn’t it? You’d have to restock your water in just a few hours of run time. Maybe less?”
“Yesh, which ish another reashon we resherve it for emergenshees.” Ched gave a snort of amusement. “Fanshy you knowing sho much about shteam enginesh. Sho, doesh that mean you really did drive? Or wash that a fib too?”
Dodger bit back a sharp retort when he saw a grin on the driver. “Okay, I deserved that. But it’s the last free one you get. Ya hear?”
“Shure thing, Sharge.”
From the depths of his overalls, Ched produced a flask and Dodger recognized the scent of rotgut the moment the man had the lid off the thing. The driver knocked back the contents, slurping and sucking in a gut aching amount of whiskey through clenched teeth before stopping to punctuate his act with an intense but muted belch. Ched then held the flask to Dodger, who shook his head.
“No thanks,” Dodger said. “I’m not much for drinking before a brawl. Thins the blood you know.”
“That’sh what I’m countin’ on.” Ched screwed the lid back in place and stowed the flash once more. “Tell me about your experiensh with the railsh.”
“I drove, for a few years. Before I was transferred to the front lines, during the war.”
Ched didn’t seem interested in Dodger’s service record. “What kind of enginesh?”
“Mostly heavy duty free steamers, hauling cargo and livestock. Sometimes passengers. It was part of my … work.” Dodger didn’t know any other way to describe it without giving away too much, too soon. If the driver wanted more, he would have to trade for it.
“Part of what work? Driving ish work.”
Boon’s voice came out of nowhere, brushing Dodger’s mind. You wouldn’t know work if landed in your lap and started to two-step.
For a moment, Dodger thought the ghost was addressing him. Which seemed most inappropriate, to say the least. It took him a second to realized Boon was addressing Ched, which was odd because that would mean-
“Shmart ash,” Ched said over Dodger’s contemplation. “I thought being dead would’ve improved your mannersh, Wash.”
Why? It didn’t improve yours.
Dodger filed that insult for future questioning. Right now he had a whole different kettle of fish to fry. He got to his feet and asked, “You can hear Boon?”
“Yesh. And he’sh only shayin’ that caush I can’t belt him for it.”
Wrong, my old friend. I said it because I can only speak the truth.
“How is this possible?” Dodger asked. “I thought I was the only one who could speak to you?”
No. I explained that Ched was the exception to the rule. Boon huffed And now I would like to add that he’s the exception to every rule. Most of them concerning manners.
“Guilty ash charged,” Ched said, then laughed.
Boon joined the driver’s harsh guffaw with a whispered chuckle.
Dodger was more than confused. “You said it had been months since you had been able to talk to anyone.”
No, I said it had been months since I had a decent conversation with anyone. And I stand by that statement.
“Sho I’m not a shcholar,” Ched said. “Shue me.”
The pair laughed together again.
“Would one of you like to explain this to me?” Dodger asked. “Because I’m really, really confused.”
I thought I’d explained that Ched’s condition allows for a certain amount of-
“What condition?” Dodger asked over Boon’s whisper.
The ghost went quiet.
The driver returned his attention to the boiler, tapping the thermometer as if it could help speed up the heating process.
It seemed that no one wanted to address the question. This wouldn’t do. If Dodger was going to be part of the crew, then he needed to be in on at least some of the mysteries. Maybe not all, but some. Before he could say as much, the door slid open again as the professor returned.
And he wasn’t alone.
Shuffling along behind the professor came an elderly man that fell into the race the rail folk referred to as Celestials. In most cases the label ‘Celestial’ was just enough to pronounce a man was of Chinese descent. But in this case, Celestial wasn’t just a description; it was this man’s everything. The fellow all but dripped with Chinese trappings, from his silken robes covered in all manner of flowing foreign script, to his split toed slippers, to his waist length, ultra thin moustache and beard combination which dangled from his narrow chin in silver tufts. He was moderately built, carrying a little more weight than Dodger usually saw on a Chinaman, though as far as height went he was no bigger than a minute. Maybe five feet. On a good day. Maybe.
“Mr. Dodger,” the professor said. “If I can’t show you the rest of my train, then at least I can introduce you to more of her crew. This is our chef and local mystic, Feng.”
The elderly man tipped forward, ever so slightly.
Dodger returned the traditional Chinese greeting, bending at the waist. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Only Dodger didn’t say this in English.
He said it in Chinese.
Feng cocked his head at the sound of Dodger’s voice, as if surprise to hear his native tongue coming from one, well, not so native.
“You speak Chinese?” the professor asked in a gasp.
“A bit,” Dodger lied. “When you work the rails long enough you pick up a smattering of the language.” Truth of the matter was Dodger knew plenty of Chinese. And a little French. And a wee bit of Russian. And a whole lot of Indian. Both the far away and the at home kinds.
“You speak it beautifully,” the professor said.
“Thank you, sir.” Still keeping his eyes on Feng, Dodger added, “But you don’t speak at all?”
Feng brought his thumb and forefinger together until there was a small gap between the two. A little bit.
“Don’t let him shcam ya,” Ched said. “He talksh. Great gravy doesh he ever talk. But only when the mood takesh him. Which ain’t often. Thank God.”
“Then when he does,” the professor said, “it’s only in Chinese. Precious little good it does most of us.”
“You understand English?” Dodger asked.
Feng nodded. Which was good, because Dodger didn’t like to speak Chinese if he didn’t have to. The language was beautiful, true, but also complex. No matter how much he practiced, he often worried when he employed the language if he was commanding his fireman to shovel faster, or propositioning the poor man to show him a good night on the town, or worse.
“Yesh,” Ched said. “But don’t ashk him to shpeak it, or we’ll be here all night trying to transhalte hish jibberish.”
Dodger looked again to the Celestial, who gave a serene smile. Dodger had seen many a smile just like it, and wasn’t fooled one iota. It had been his experience that old timers loved to hide their sharp minds behind wistful grins and doddering steps and shaking hands. They also could hide a thunderhead of rage under all that too. Or at least Mrs. Bolton did. No, Dodger wasn’t set to ease by the frail elder act. If anything, it put him on guard. He suspected the man had an interesting tale to tell, and Dodger couldn't wait to hear it.
“Now the formalities are done with,” the professor said, “let’s see to your injury. Feng, the box, if you please.”
Dodger had been so distracted by the presence of the old man that he failed to note the case the Celestial was toting. Feng passed a wooden chest the size of a breadbox over to the professor, who set it on the cabinet and motioned for Dodger to return to a seated position. Dodger sat again while the professor produced a very small key from one of the lab coat’s many pockets. Key in hand, the man unlocked the chest and began to rummage around inside.
“Number three,” the professor mumbled over the bright tinkle of glass rapping upon glass that arose from the depths of the box. “Number four. Five. Two. Ten. Seven. Sixty-nine?” The professor paused in his search and held up a vial filled with a bright green fluid. “When did we make a number sixty-nine? Oh yes, I remember now. After that thing with Boon and Lelanea and the … what was that thing again?”
“A shuccubush,” Ched said, his usual grimace taking on a distinctly dirty grin.
“Yes. Well, we shouldn’t have that trouble again. One of these babies to the groin and … well … yes. The less said about that the better.” The professor returned the vial to the box as he got back to rummaging. “Ten. Seven. Six. Another sixty-nine. Good to know we have a few of those. Four. Four. Four. Dear, I seem to have quite a few fours. Will you make a note of that, Feng? Some of those can be converted to ones, which I don’t seem to have any of … no … I take that back. Here’s a one. And ah-ha! Number eight!” With this proclamation, the professor withdrew another glass vial, closed the box lid and passed the whole wooden works back to Feng.
Eyeing the vial, Dodger asked, “What’s a number eight?”
“A medicinal compound,” the professor explained, as he patted his coat pockets. “Instantly heals muscle sprains. Restores burned flesh to relative normality. Knits bones within moments for a speedy recovery. Over all it is a curative of the highest caliber.”
Dodger snorted. “Sounds like snake oil to me.”
The professor cut his eyes at Dodger. “How did you know that?”
“Never mind.” The professor huffed as he continued to pat his pockets, searching for something he wasn’t able to find. “Where on earth did I leave it? Here, hold this.” The professor shoved the vial into Dodger’s good hand.
Dodger raised the vial to his eye level. A viscous, silver liquid inside the glass shimmered with a greasy sheen. “So, what, I drink this?”
“I wouldn’t shuggesht it,” Ched said.
Everyone in the cab chuckled at that. Even Boon.
“Then it’s topical?” Dodger asked.
Boon whispered, Not by a long shot.
“Shpeakin’ of shotsh,” Ched said and nodded to the professor.
Dodger almost jumped out of his skin when he laid eyes on what Dittmeyer was so eager to find.