Bridging the Gap
In which Dodger tries to set things right.
Dodger drew a deep breath and exhaled, very slowly, before he returned his attention to the doc. “Sir? Would you care to explain what your mark was doing on the machine that changed them?”
The professor smiled a nervous little grin and tittered with a nervous little giggle.
“Doc?” Dodger asked.
“Please,” the professor begged, “you must understand I have no control over what happens to the machines I create once they reach the common market and-”
“You did this to us!” Thad shouted.
The other men howled in concurrence.
Waves of anger and frustration rolled over Dodger, leaving him sick to the core for the suffering of his fellow countrymen. But Dodger suspected something deeper was going on here. That somewhere along the line, the professor was quite innocent of the charges leveled against him, no matter how damning the evidence. Dittmeyer struck Dodger as the scatterbrained type, but he was by no means an evil man. This was the same doctor who thrust himself fists first into the chest of a complete stranger, trying to save the man’s life. This was also the same scientist who agreed to help return the dog-men to their original human state, or at least do his best to stabilize them.
Why would he do that if he were responsible for their position to begin with?
Regret? Most assuredly. That much was written all over the man’s quivering face.
The howls of the dog-men devolved into deep-seated growls and a great gnashing of teeth, and Dodger knew outright biting would come next.
“Kill him!” Clyde shouted.
“Blood for blood!” Stanley yelled.
“I’ll bite his face off,” Bottle said, though Dodger wondered how the man planned on doing that with such rotten choppers.
“Thaddeus!” Dodger shouted, and rested his hands on his guns. “Control them, or I will.”
“You threaten us?” Thad asked with a snarl. “In defense of him?”
Dodger lifted his hands off the pistols, to prove his peaceful intentions. “No, but I won’t let you hurt him either. I said you could trust him, and I stand by that. Give him a chance to explain. Killing him won’t do you no good. Especially if he’s to blame.”
“If he’s to blame, then killing him will be a greater pleasure than you can possibly imagine.”
“That’s as it may be. You may be killing the only man who can change you back again. What good will that do?”
The men fell into a brooding mumble, but at last they backed down from their threatening stances. Good. This was a start. Now, on to the hard part.
Dodger went to the professor and laid his hand on the man’s shaking shoulder to steady him. To calm him. “Doc? I know we don’t really know one another from Adam’s housecat. But from what little I’ve seen of you in action, I feel I can say you’re not the kind of man who would do this to a living being. Am I right?”
“Yes!” the professor squeaked. “I would never consciously allow such a thing to come to pass. Please. You must believe me.”
With that single word, Dodger started to get an idea of what was going on here. He tightened his grip on the professor’s shoulder, sending the squat man signals of reassurance while keeping the man from fleeing the scene in a panic. “Sir, I’m going to ask you a question now, and I got a feeling it’s going to be really hard for you to answer, and awful hard for these boys to listen to that answer without getting a might bit upset. But I’m gonna have to ask you the question anyway. And I know you’ll tell us the truth.”
The professor nodded, the wattles of his bearded chin jiggling in the fervor of his agreement. “Of course I will. I’m not a very good liar, as you know.”
“I know, sir.” Dodger flashed the doc a quick smile. He then turned a more serious look upon Thad. “Can you and your men control yourselves long enough to allow him to explain?”
“If that is what you wish, Dodger,” Thad said.
The others grunted in agreement.
Dodger, though still unwilling to be their new leader, took the opening given him and rode the authority to its fullest. “You’re right. That is what I want. I want you fellows to calm down and hold all of your anger and fury and fussing until this man has a chance to explain himself. Can you do that?”
Again, the men grunted in assent.
Preparing himself for the worst, Dodger nodded to the professor. “Go ahead.”
“It is true,” the professor said. He slumped into the seat of a tall stool parked before his work bench. “I am responsible for the technology that changed you into what you are now.” He paused as if expecting retaliation, but the men were true to their words and held their tongues. Given a window to explain, the professor continued. “I stumbled on the concept of cellular manipulation several years ago, but even then I never intended it for such a hideous application. You must believe that. I never meant it for use on live subjects.”
“Then why make such a thing at all?” Clyde asked.
“Clyde,” Thad warned. “Let him talk.”
“No,” the professor said. “He has a right to ask. It’s a fair question with a surprisingly innocent answer. My original intention was to mix various components of different dietary sources to create a sounder source of nutrition.”
Every eye blinked. Every brow wrinkled.
The professor seemed to sense the confusion and elaborated. “Imagine a foodstuff that holds the high iron of beef liver mixed with all the protein of pork, the vitamin C of oranges, the potassium of spinach, and the beneficial oils of fresh fish. My machine, my original idea, that is, allows the user to join these source components into manageable bite-sized cubes that are easier to ship and maintain than the combination of the original elements. The cubes never rot. Never dry out. Never go to waste. Of course, they aren’t very tasty either, but then again, it wasn’t so much about flavor as portability and nutrition.”
Dodger had to hand it to the man, it did sound like a fine idea. “Then the question I suppose we should ask is who did you sell the original machine to?”
The professor gave an impish little grin. “You must understand this was a few years before I moved to America. I think it was the winter of ‘64, but my memory isn’t what it used to be. Truth be told, I didn’t even know there was a war on. I simply conceived the notion for the device, created the blasted thing, then shipped it off to the highest bidder. I just assumed it would be employed for hospitals and the like.” He scratched his beard as his mind wandered again, taking his mouth with it. “You see, it has been my experience that the food in hospitals is, by some strange tradition, quite atrocious. My thought was that the food might as well pack as much nutrition as possible if it’s going to end up tasting like the bottom of a used emesis basin-”
“Doc …” Dodger said.
“Oh, back to the point, yes? Well, the point is I never imagined someone would employ the Poly-Organic Weaver for such a nefarious means. I can’t begin to fathom what changes they made to the thing. You see, it wasn’t designed to handle live specimens.”
“So you’re saying whoever did this changed your design. It was meant for organic material but not living, breathing organic material. You didn’t make it for that. Right?”
The professor winced with a hiss. “Yes, well … in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I did try my hand at a live subject or two, but never human beings. No, mercy me, no indeed. A few chickens and lab mice, but never a human. In fact, I didn’t think such a thing possible. Someone, whoever he was, didn’t just get his hands on my device and start cranking out dog-men. No, he altered my design. Tampered with it. Why, the whole idea infuriates me, that my device, bearing my hard work and my personal signature, would be used for such a terrible deed.”
“You’re not at fault here,” Dodger reassured the man. “That much is clear.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dodger, but I still feel responsible for what happened to these men. What I don’t understand is how the Pow device ended up at the prison to begin with.”
“Pow device?” Dodger echoed, then groaned as he made the obvious connection. “Poly-Organic Weaver. Prisoner of War. P. O. W.”
“What does that mean?” Thad asked.
“It means a typical government screw-up. The professor here sold his machine to the Confederates, but instead of it turning out compact meals for the boys in gray, it ended up at Camp Sumter. A P.O.W. device shipped to a P.O.W. camp.”
Thad stared at the professor, weighing the man’s words against the growling of his comrades. “But you swear you don’t know Commander Rex?”
“Who?” The professor furrowed his brow for a moment of intense thought. His eyes shot wide and he said, “Oh, you mean that dreadful man who was in charge at your prison? No, I don’t know him personally. Only of him.”
And Dodger really wished the man hadn’t said that last bit. Thad turned to Dodger with a look that demanded more.
“Private Clemet told us a little of what happened,” Dodger explained. “Before he passed on, he mentioned the commander by name. It’s the only reason the doc knows of him. Isn’t that right, boss man?”
“Yes!” the professor squeaked. “I never met the man. Honestly. I never handle sales personally. I have people for that. Well, I had people. Now I have Ched. Which is kind of like a person if you plug your nose and squint really hard.”
“Does he always ramble like that?” Bottle asked in a whisper under the professor’s rambling.
Dodger nodded. “You see? He is a good man at heart. His work, strange as it is, was well intended. Someone else warped it. The doc didn’t do this to you. Commander Rex did this to you. Rex perverted not just the laws of nature, but this man’s good intentions. Do you believe us now?”
“Give us a moment, please,” Thad said. “This is a lot to swallow.”
The dog-men formed a tight circle on one side of the lab to confer on the details. Dodger remained near the professor, just in case, but he was fairly sure the Doc’s explanations had tempered their anger. After a minute or so of discussion, the men broke apart and Thad nodded to Dodger, then gave the professor a curt nod as well. But all of them still wore worried looks and eyed the doc with suspicion. Dodger had a feeling that no matter how many ways you sliced it, they blamed Dittmeyer for their present state of being. And he reckoned he would feel the same had he been in the doghouse himself.
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