Bridging the Gap
“Then you believe me?” the professor asked.
“We believe you meant no harm,” Thad said. “Yet we can’t help but remain mistrustful of you.”
“But you have to trust me,” the professor said. “Because I am the only one who can help you.”
“I’m not sure we want your brand of help.”
“You don’t have to want it, but you do need my help, because you are much worse off than you think. You all are. I’m afraid to say, your entire Pack is damned, thanks to this mysterious Mr. Rex.”
Thad cocked his head at Dodger. “What does he mean?”
“Tell ‘em, Doc,” Dodger said.
The professor clasped his hands together and interlaced his fingers, all save the forefingers, which he tapped against one another as he explained. “The reason I gave up on live subjects was simple: cellular instability. I could blend the physical bodies of a chicken and a mouse, but the end result—aside from being abhorrent, I mean who wants a teeny tiny furry chicken?—the wings were too small for flight, or food, and not to mention the … wait … where was I? Oh yes, the end result was highly unstable. The ensuing creature seemed in the best of health but would last no more than a few days, sometimes hours, before collapsing into a pool of goop.”
The men exchanged glances at the familiar effect.
“I eventually discovered,” the professor said, “that I could meld the flesh of these creatures with no difficulty or side effects.” The professor paused to clear his throat. “Well, not many side effects. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that as long as I used the flesh and not the living animals themselves, I could merge all day to my heart’s content. But put a live creature in it and I ended up with soup. And soup I can make without a cellular manipulator and without the burden of such a deed on my already aching conscience.”
Four doggish faces turned to Dodger, seeking interpretation.
“What happens to you when you suffer a mortal wound?” Dodger asked.
“We … well … we sort of dissolve,” Tad said.
“What the professor is trying to say is that it won’t be much longer before you and your fellow Pack members break down without the help of a wound. That soon you will just dissolve where you stand, without warning.”
A collective gasp rose from the men as their eyes went wide with understanding.
“How long do we have?” Bottle asked.
“It’s impossible for me to tell without further testing,” the professor said. “A few days? A few hours? I’m surprised you’ve lasted as long as you have. Despite the unethical connotation of his work, having a subject last almost five years is an amazing feat-”
“Sir,” Thad said over the professor. “We haven’t been this way for five years.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’ve only been this way for a few months,” Stanley said.
The professor slowly shook his head, confused by the man’s claim. “But … the prisoner-of-war camp … the commander … I don’t understand …”
“We weren’t changed at Sumter,” Thad said. “We met at Sumter, we were imprisoned there together, but in the spring of ’65, Commander Rex and his elite guard moved about a hundred of us to another P.O.W. camp. And he brought that device with us.”
“Another camp?” Dodger asked. “Where?”
“Some series of caves off the coast; we aren’t really sure of the exact location. All I know is that we spent the next five years confined there. Half of us died in those caves, some from natural causes, others from Rex’s experiments. Most of us had given up on anyone finding us again.”
“The war raged on,” Bottle said, “and we remained his prisoners.”
“But the war ended that summer,” Dodger said.
Thad snorted. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know anything. He kept us in the dark for years. None of us even knew the war was over until we escaped.”
“Why that scoundrel,” the professor said. “I’ll wager that this so-called Commander Rex must have realized the war was going poorly for his side. He felt the winds of change and snuck off like a thief in the night with a full regiment of human test subjects and my blasted machine.” The doc slammed the work table with a clenched fist. “That makes me so angry! It’s one thing when a man agrees to be part of an experiment, but to cage a bunch of men—veterans no less—and subject them to such atrocities in the name of science … why … that just makes my blood boil. That isn’t science! That’s insanity!”
If Dodger had any doubt that the professor was a good man, an honest man— granted, a strange man, but a noble one nonetheless—then this speech put those fears to rest. The doc shook with rage, his ire provoked by the thought of such injustice. It not only put Dodger’s faith in the man’s favor, it also left Dodger with the feeling that perhaps the whole world wasn’t the right bunch of bastards he’d thought they were for so long. Maybe there was truth and justice out there, somewhere, for there certainly seemed to be a heaping dose of it right here.
“It might please you to know,” Thad said, “that he got his own in the end.”
“His own?” the professor asked.
“We put him in that damned machine of his,” Bottle said, then proceeded to cackle like a happy hen.
“Tis true,” Thad said. “We closed him inside and cranked it as high as it would go. We had seem him operate it enough to know what to do.”
“What became of him?” Dodger asked.
“We don’t know. We took off while it was still changing him. For all we know the thing exploded taking him with it.”
“Good riddance too,” the professor said.
The metallic echo of Ched’s voice cut into the conversation. “Dodger. We have arrived.”
“I’m on my way,” Dodger said and did his best to stand his ground as the train slowed to a halt.
The inexperienced men swayed forward with the shift in momentum, but the professor never moved from his perched position upon the stool.
“Are we settled here then?” Dodger asked. “Do you men trust my boss? Or should we just part ways now and you can take your chances as you see fit?”
Thad and the others exchanged glances, unspoken words passing between the four men. Each nodded once, in turn, answering Dodger’s question without so much as a growl.
Seemingly satisfied by this silent symposium, Thad said, “We believe you. And trust you. Both of you. Tell us what you want from us, and we shall try our best to comply.”
“Excellent!” the professor shouted as he rubbed his hands together. “We should get started right away. I have an idea of what can be done to stabilize you, but I will need to run a few tests to be sure.” When someone—it was hard to tell just who—gave a puppy-dog whine at the idea of more tests, the professor explained, “Just blood work. Yes? Nothing too invasive to start off with. Though it might get a bit trickier as we go.”
“We shall submit to your tests,” Thad said. “Granted it will make us whole again.”
“I’m sure he will try his best,” Dodger said. “I’ll leave you in the professor’s capable hands.”
“Where are you off to?” the professor asked as he followed Dodger into the joining section.
“I need to help Ched jerk some water.”
“Ahh, I see. Will you wake Torque on your way past the meeting car? I’ll need some extra hands.”
“Yes, sir.” Dodger had pulled the door to the next car open when the professor called to him again.
Dodger turned in place and asked, “Yes?”
“Thank you,” the professor said. “Thank you for … well … for everything. Had I known my research was responsible for such a terrible crime, I would have … just … thank you for giving me the chance to make amends to these poor men.”
“Sir, don’t fault yourself for something you had no control over.”
“I can’t help but feel guilty for what happened to them.”
Words of wisdom sprang to Dodger’s mind and tongue. “A god implants in mortals guilt whenever he wants utterly to confound a house.” The words were out of his mouth before he knew it, and once again he betrayed his simpleton facade with a flash of intelligence.
The professor smiled. “The Greek poet Aeschylus. Nicely quoted too. You are just full of surprises, aren’t you? I expect great things from you, Mr. Dodger. Yes. Great things indeed.” His conscience eased, the professor returned to the cab and left Dodger to his work.
Dodger paused to mull over the idea of what great things the professor expected of him, but a soft click caught his attention. He looked down the hallway just in time to see the last door on the left slide shut.
For a brief moment, he was tempted to knock upon her door again, but decided against it when he remembered the sting of her backslap. Besides, if she wanted to talk to him, she would have stepped into the hallway and not retreated behind her door. Let her hide. He had other things to tend to.
And a very different woman to face.
End Volume Two