In which Dodger longs for a mount, but gets something much better.
The Sleipnir arrived at her destination just as the horizon was busy trying its hardest to swallow the sun. The sun, however, wasn’t giving up without a fight. It cast its last few rays across the ocean of sand, as if scrambling for purchase on its way down the mealy throat of the distance, leaving behind streaks of amber and orange in its burning wake. Wisps of clouds, now free from their solar despot, reached across this painted landscape with shadowy tendrils, carrying in their touch all the secrets of darkness and the promise of the oncoming night.
Dodger looked up and down the length of the train, turning back and forth to take in the distance, in both directions. But no matter which way he looked all he saw was sinking sun and hot sand and encroaching darkness.
“Where is this supposed town?” he finally asked.
“Waxford?” the professor asked. “We’re still a good distance from it. Thirty miles or more, if Ched followed his instructions. And he usually does.”
Dodger smirked. “Then you were serious. You can’t get closer than that?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
“How will they know? There’s nobody around.”
“They’ll know. Trust me. I put nothing past them. Though a tad eccentric, the residents of Waxford posses valuable information as well as invaluable arcane objects. They also are uncannily clever. Thus I will play whatever game is required to appease their unusual appetites.”
“Then you’re shending me in after all?” Ched asked from the back of the engine cab.
The professor frowned at his grinning driver. “I don’t mean those kinds of appetites.”
“I can handle it alone,” Dodger reminded the driver.
“Shuit yourshelf,” Ched said. “I’m shure you’ll enjoy the trip.” A hint of humor lingered in his words, leaving Dodger most uncomfortable.
“I hate to be the requester of bad news,” Dodger said. “But am I right in thinking you expect me to hoof the next thirty miles?”
“Not at all,” the professor said.
Dodger was pleased not to have to walk the distance, if not just a touch confused on how he was going to make the trip if not by foot.
Then the professor added, “You’ll take the Rhino.”
Which only served to confuse Dodger all the more.
“Torque is dishengaging her now, shir,” Ched said.
Which didn’t help matters for Dodger at all.
“What is the Rhino?” he finally found the wherewithal to ask.
“I’m so very glad you asked,” the professor said. And the way he rubbed his hands together seemed to confirm his words. He looked very glad indeed. The professor held out a hand to the end of the line, toward the caboose.
Dodger fell into step beside of the man, more curious and confused than ever. He supposed it as a state he would just have to get used to.
“When I first began to travel in the Sleipnir,” the professor said, “I was immediately faced with a simple problem; size. The Sleipnir, though a marvel in her own right, is far too large to travel into some areas. Specifically into inhabited areas, such as townships and cities. The regular railways have no problem with this due to their monopoly on the tracks. They just glide into towns and back out again. No one thinks anything of it.”
“But take a transport like this in a town,” Dodger said, catching the professor’s well placed drift, “and all hell will break loose.”
“Exactly. As a result, I had to devise a separate means of transport. Something smaller, easier to handle, but at the same time non-obtrusive. Something that wouldn’t spook the locals, as it were.”
Dodger controlled his urge to smirk. What he knew of the man, he was fairly sure it would be next to impossible for Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer not to spook the locals.
As they approached the end of the line, the professor waved his hand at the caboose. “And now I’m pleased to introduce to you the end result of such a quandary. Mr. Dodger, behold the Rhino.”
The front and top sections of the caboose was still attached to the train, but a cube segment from the back end and base had been detached, slid free from the SMART and was now resting on wheels of its own beside the rest of the train. Mr. Torque sat in the back of this standalone segment of the caboose, turning some hidden crank, which raised a foldaway roof over the whole affair.
It looked very much like a carriage. So much so that Dodger commented on it.
“A carriage?” the professor asked. “Oh, my boy, it is so much more than just a carriage. So much more. Torque! Open her up, if you please.”
“Yes, sir,” the metal man said. He opened a small side door and climbed out of the carriage that was more than just a carriage.
“The Rhino is unique among vehicles,” the professor said as he ushered Dodger toward the thing. “Aside from being virtually indestructible, she can reach speeds of up to one hundred miles an hour or more with sufficient input.”
“One hundred!” Dodger exclaimed.
“Yes, but as I said it requires sufficient input. The fastest I’ve clocked her at was around seventy five, and that was at a very short run. I hypothesize that with adequate effort she could reach unheard of speeds.”
“Effort,” Dodger echoed just as they reached the front of the Rhino and looked under the now opened hood. He expected to find a steam engine, much like the one on the Sleipnir, only in miniature. But instead the space was filled with a series of flywheels, ten in all, bound to one another by lengths of slated belts and connected in turn to a variety of cogs ranging from the size of his fist to the size of a diner plate. The disturbing lack of horses—or any beast of burden for that matter—left him dreading his next question. “What kind of input does it take?”
“Manual, of course,” the professor said.
“Of course.” Dodger eyed the mechanisms, wondering just how much manual effort he was going to have to put into the thing to make it fifty miles. And back again.
“I think you will discover it is a comfortable ride. I have always found carriage rides most unpleasant, you see. And after some exploratory research I discovered the chief culprit was the deficiency of a proper suspension. Thusly, I took the lousy suspension of such a vehicle into consideration when I designed the Rhino. And of course, the lack of wild animals at the helm helps considerably.” He motioned for Dodger to inspect the interior. “As you can see the seats are padded for extra comfort, and the-”
“Sir,” Dodger said over him. “I hate to interrupt, but I think I get the general idea. I apply manual power and it goes.” Dodger nodded to the pedals in the floorboard of the vehicle. Pedals he was certain propelled the flywheels and powered the simple engine underneath the hood.
The professor grinned. “Normally I don’t enjoy when someone steals the thunder of my explanation, but it pleases me to see you’ve worked out just how the Rhino functions with just the hint of detail. Extraordinary. Simply extraordinary. Once again you impress me, Mr. Dodger.”
“So tell me, how much manual effort will fifty miles require. I don’t want to be tuckered out by the time I get there.”
“Not much at all. Each flywheel expounds the amount of kinetic energy fed into it, exponentially increasing it to the next in line. By the time it reaches the main gear shaft, that energy is compounded to the tenth degree. Why, the effort to maintain thirty miles per hour feels like nothing more than a pleasant stroll.”
“Which means I have to pedal the whole way.”
“Yes, you have to pedal the entire trip. There is nothing to be done about that. Unless you want to take someone with you. Someone to share the load, as it were.” The professor leaned in and lowered his voice. “There is a reason Boon always took Ched with him on these little trips. The man never seems to tire. Of course, it’s hard to get him to do much else, so I supposed it’s good to have him for something besides pulling levers up front.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Are you sure? He is rather keen on going.”
Dodger glanced back, over his shoulder at Ched, who stood with his arms crossed and his typical shit eating grin framing his yellowing teeth. “Again, thanks for the offer sir, but I think I can make it alone.”
Almost alone, Boon whispered, his presence sidling alongside Dodger.
About time too. Dodger was beginning to wonder where the spirit had wandered off to. And for that matter, where was that pretty niece at?
“Have it your way.” The professor withdrew a silver pocket watch, checked the time, looked to the position of the sun, licked a finger, held it to the air a moment, then pointed to the distance. “There. Waxford should be about thirty miles in that direction. There is a saloon in the middle of town. The Desert Rose. You can’t miss it.”
The Desert Rose. Something about the name sounded familiar, but Dodger couldn’t put his finger on just what.
The professor dug about in his jacket, then pulled forth a thick envelope which he handed to Dodger “When you arrive, ask for Rebecca. Tell her I sent you, and she should give you what you are after.”
Dodger ran his hands along the bulging envelope, and wondered just how much money there was inside. He knew better than to ask a superior the contents of a sealed package.
The professor continued, “All of it should be there, plus more. Tell her I included a bonus for being so demanding as of late.”
“Becky will want to count the cash,” Ched said. “Sho don’t be shurprished if she makesh you wait while she doesh.”
“Yes,” the professor said. “Miss Rebecca is less trusting than even my niece. And that’s saying quite a lot. Well then, Mr. Dodger, are you prepared? Is there anything else I can do for you before you go?”
“You can tell me the truth,” Dodger said.
“The truth about what?”
“Waxford. What is so dangerous about the place? You make it sound like nothing more than a town of thieves, but I have a feeling you aren’t giving me all the details.”
The professor became visibly nervous; picking at his jacket, smoothing down his bowtie, scratching at his head, and doing everything but explaining.
“Not getting shcared, are we?” Ched asked.
“No,” Dodger said. “But I have no plans on turning into a mushroom either.”
Ched furrowed his brow—a nausea inducing facial contortion for anyone watching him—as he tried to figure out just what in the world Dodger was talking about.
Boon whispered, He means he doesn’t like being kept in the dark and fed manure.
“Precisely,” Dodger said under his breath. Louder, he added. “Is someone going to shed some light on this?”
“Light,” the professor said with a loud clap of his hands. “Of course. You’ll need light. The Rhino has built in headlamps, but you might require a portable source. Torque! Bring me a Sunbox!”
“Way ahead of you, as usual,” the metal man said and passed a gray box off to the professor.
About a half a foot in length and less than that in width, most of the box was metal, save for one side, which looked to be a pane of frosted amber glass.
“Thank you,” the professor said. He flipped a handle out from the back of the box, and gave this impromptu crank a few good turns. In seconds, the glass pane emanated a soft glow. “Easy to use. The more you crank, the brighter the light, the longer it lasts. You can shut it down by pushing the handle back into place. Here you are. The Sunbox.”
Dodger took the Sunbox from the professor, his eyes wide with wonder. “Again, I don’t know what to say.”
The professor held up a chubby palm. “Before you espouse my genius any further, I feel I should admit this is not one of my designs. I borrowed the idea from a colleague.”
“I think he means he pilfered it,” Mr. Torque said.
“No, I said what I meant and I meant what I said. Otto was more than glad to allow me to commandeer his design. It’s not like I’m selling it. Just employing it.”
“You sell it all the time.”
“You do too. You used it on that gunner golem you sold last week to the Germans. And it’s the same design you used for the headlamps of the Sleipnir, and the Rhino, and that self propelled underwater thingy you sold to-”
“Enough!” The professor huffed. “We made a trade. Otto got the plans for you and I got the Sunbox. In this case, I came out the winner here. God help him if he actually tries to build another one of you.”
“We would’ve known for shure if he did,” Ched said. “The world couldn’t handle another one of him.”
Everyone laughed, save Mr. Torque, who proceeded to fume under his metal shell.
The professor cut his chortle short and clapped again, rubbing his hands together as he said, “Good then. All set? Of course you are. Wrap her up, Torque, and show him the ropes. Or the pedals, as it were.”
The Rhino was simple to operate; stepping up and down on the pedals powered the locomotion. Easy as that. A manual gear allowed for shifting from forward to reverse, and a wide steering wheel controlled direction. After a quick run down of the vehicle from Mr. Torque, Dodger boarded and went on his way with the spirit of Boon in tow.
He was almost twenty minutes into the trip when he realized that the professor had cleverly avoided telling Dodger anything else about the town he was headed for.