“I’ll try.” The doc clasped his hands and tapped the tips of his forefingers together. “What I’m trying to say is that the machine is employed to reduce the size of objects. It makes objects smaller. It shrinks them.” He motioned to the muzzle end of the thing. “For example, I could place an object just there. Say, my hat, for instance. I would then power the machine with this crank here.” The professor flipped out an arm from the side of the device, giving it a few turns to show it was indeed a crank. The machine crackled and groaned in response to his cranking. “Once the generator was at full capacity, I would then activate it with the trigger there at the other end, and the machine would emit a series of focused rays—which I have dubbed infinitium rays, by the way—and voilà. The hat would be smaller.”
“How much smaller?” the sheriff asked.
“The smallness would depend upon the settings of the machine. Half the size. A fourth. A mere millimeter in length.”
“Does it stay that way forever?”
“Certainly not. It’s impossible to maintain that much compression for lengthy periods of time. And again, the result depends on the settings and the amount of energy used.” The professor poked at the dials and switches on the machine in question. “From what I can see, the last person who used this set it to its upper limit of twenty-four hours.”
“Meaning,” Dodger said, “whatever he shrank will only be that way for a day.”
“Yes. Excellent deduction, Mr. Dodger. But I’ve come to expect such from you.”
“But how?” Dodger asked. “How is it possible to shrink something at all?”
“Oh dear …” The professor pondered this question a moment, then sighed. “I’m afraid that explanation will require a few diagrams and maybe a model or two. Oh, and a Master’s in Physics. Of course.”
The professor leaned into Dodger, pulling him down by the elbow to whisper into his ear. “I’m sure you could grasp it in no time, Mr. Dodger, but I’m afraid your friends here would be a bit lost in our discussion. We don’t want to make them feel awkward, do we?”
“No, sir, we don’t.”
“Piddlecock!” Biddlesworth shouted.
“Piddlecock?” the professor asked.
“Yes. Piddlecock. The notion of that machine making things smaller? Piddlecock and hogwash, I say. Why, the very idea is preposterous.”
“I assure you, my good man, that what you have before you is indeed a reduction machine, and not, as you put it, piddlecock. In fact, I stake my name on it.”
Biddlesworth pursed his lips thin enough to drain them to white lines. “Fine, then. Prove it. Shrink something.”
“I can’t prove it.”
“Ha! You can’t prove it, because it’s all piddlecock!”
“There. He said it again. Piddlecock?” The professor whimpered in distress and turned to Dodger again. “I’ve heard of poppycock. I say poppycock myself, but what on earth is a piddle and why is he obsessed with the thing’s co-”
“Professor,” Dodger said over the man. “Why can’t you prove it?”
“Well, I would that I could, but I can’t, because it’s broken.”
“Ha!” the banker shouted. “Likely excuse.”
“Yes. It is likely. So likely, in fact, that it is true.” The doc placed his hand in the gap between the muzzle and the trigger mechanism. “There should be a crystal the size of my fist just about here. But as you can see, there isn’t one. Whoever employed it last either destroyed it or took it with them.”
Dodger caught that last phrase and latched onto it.
A destroyed crystal.
Why did that sound familiar?
“Hang on a tick,” he said as the answer came to him.
Grabbing a lantern, Dodger returned to the cubbyhole, ducked inside and carefully swept some of the shards into his handkerchief. Just as he grabbed the lamp again, something in the corner caught his attention. A shadowy spot in the back of the recess. A place he hadn’t noticed before, because the machine was blocking it from view. Dodger pushed the lamp against the back wall of the cubby and knelt to peer closer, making sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him.
A narrow hole sat at the bottom of the lead-lined wall, a few inches high and a few inches wide. Just outside of the hole lay a heaped pile of what appeared to be discarded miniature shelves. Even weirder than this, just inside the mouth of the hole was a tiny set of tracks. They reminded Dodger of train tracks, only much, much, much smaller. This fact noted, he clutched the handful of shards and returned to the doc.
“You’re right,” he said, handing the hanky over. “The crystal was destroyed. There’s a layer of this all over the floor in there.”
The doc clucked his tongue as he brooded over the contents of the hanky. “It seems whoever used the machine last had no intention of letting others have a go at it.”
Which fit right into Dodger’s idea of what had happened. “Can you fix it?”
“I’m sure I have the right components. Looks like a simple quartz to me. Maybe a few other bits and bobs. But you should know it will take some time.”
“How long? ‘Cause I’m not sure how much time we have.”
“Fix it?” Biddlesworth asked. “I thought you said you wanted to help us.”
“I am helping,” Dodger said. “But you have to trust me.”
“I don’t know how I can trust anyone anymore. My bank has been robbed, those people out there have lost their entire life savings in one night, and your idea of helping is to fix some ridiculous fantasy machine?”
“Robbed?” the professor asked. “Who was robbed?”
“Them wash robbed,” Ched said. “Shome brave shumbitch took off with their whole banksh holdingsh in the middle of the night. Which meansh they ain’t got the jack to pay you either, shir.”
“Is that true, Mr. Dodger?” the professor asked.
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said, cutting his eyes at the driver. “But I think I can track down-”
“Well then,” the professor said without giving a Dodger a chance to explain. “I’m afraid you know the policy. No money, no service.” He snapped up his hat and began to put his gloves on.
“Professor Dittmeyer,” Sheriff Stanley said. “Please don’t abandon us like this. We need those lamps. Our town is liable to die off without ‘em. We’ll come up with your money somehow.”
“And when you do, you can send for me. But until then, I am a very busy man. I do apologize, and I hate to seem unreasonable, but science doesn’t fund itself. Well, in a way it does, but this is how it funds itself. Understand?”
“I understand we need those lamps,” the sheriff said. “And we are good for the money. We just need more time.”
“I don’t have time. I did what was asked of me; I expect compensation.” The professor bowed, returned his hat to his head and said, “Good day, gentlemen. You know how to reach me.” The man then made for the exit at a fairly good clip.
Dodger scurried up behind the professor and took him by the arm. “Sir, I know they owe you a hunk of change, but please give me a chance-”
“Mr. Dodger,” the professor whispered, “I appreciate the situation these people are in, believe me. I don’t wish to appear an ogre, but I cannot gain a reputation for handouts or charity. Not again. You take pity on one family and give them an iron horse to help them haul their wood to market, and next thing you know, you have half a village lining up expecting their free horse too. It’s a nightmare, I tell you. A nightmare. And it ends up costing you a month’s worth of work and countless materials. This is for the best. I am sorry.”
“I understand you have to do what is best for your family, and I would never ask you to put yourself out or give away your talents. You deserve to be showered in gold for all you do.”
“Really?” The professor smiled as he considered this. “Golden showers, you say?”
Dodger smirked. “Not exactly, but please hear me out. I think I know what happened to-”
“What if you took the masheen as trade?” Ched asked over him. “Or maybe ash a down payment, at leasht until they can find their mishing money?”
Though the driver had interrupted Dodger, an action he found most annoying, he didn’t mind in this instance, because it really was a good idea.
“That old thing?” the professor said, looking back at the machine with a scowl. “It’s a nice gesture, but I don’t really need another one.”
“Ched has the right idea, sir,” Dodger said. “If it’s all they have, then perhaps you could just take it as …” Dodger’s words trailed off as his brain caught up with his ears. “Wait up, now. What do you mean you don’t need another one?”
“I mean I have a reduction machine already. A much nicer one too, if I do say so myself. In fact, Lelanea and I have been working on all manner of inventions that employ the infinitium rays. I can show you if you like.”
Dodger grinned. And as he grinned, he pondered just how strange it was the way some things fell so neatly into place. As if the universe planned out the whole of history. As if accident and circumstance were just mere words.
“I would like that, sir,” he said. “I’d like that very much. Because I have an idea of what happened to their money, and I think you can help them get it back. With science, of course. And at an extra fee.”
The professor narrowed his eyes at Dodger, but behind the suspicion, Dodger could see that familiar glimmer in the man’s eyes. That gleam of excitement that said science was about to be done and money was about to be made and everybody better buckle in and hang on tight, because things were about to get real bumpy-like from here on in!