In which Dodger unwillingly shares his guilt.
When Dodger first returned to the line, he tried to give a full debriefing of what happened at the sheriff’s office, but the doc wouldn’t give him a chance. The man wouldn’t look him straight in the face either. He offered side glances aplenty while Dodger attempted to give his report, but not a single dead-on stare. Before Dodger could launch into the sordid details of the fake identity and the strange initials that seemed so familiar, the doc excused himself from the room under the pretense of “work to be done.”
Poor doc, Boon whispered. I haven’t seen him this shaken in a long time.
“I don’t know what to do to regain his confidence,” Dodger said.
What are you talking about?
“You saw how he was acting. He doesn’t trust me anymore.”
It that what you believe?
“Sure. He couldn’t even look me straight in the face. What else could it be?”
Isn’t it obvious?
“I thought it was, but how about you enlighten me?”
He bears the guilt of the man’s death more so than even you.
Now that was something Dodger couldn’t understand. “Why? He had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t even there.”
Yes, but it was his equipment. It was his invention that made the man disappear.
“But it’s not his fault. That maniac broke the belt. Not the doc.”
Sounds almost convincing when I hear someone else say it aloud.
Dodger huffed. Of course they were no longer just talking about Dittmeyer’s guilt. No, you couldn’t have just one conversation with Boon. You had three or four at the same time. Was that it, then? The doc felt bad about Duncan’s death, yet the man was no more at fault than Dodger. More to the point, the doc might have felt guilty, but the man wasn’t going to scurry off to suffer so easily. Dodger didn’t think he could cope with the guilt of Duncan’s death and the guilt of making the doc feel so guilty about it.
Once the train was well underway, Dodger went to the man’s lab and knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” the doc called out.
Dodger rolled his eyes. Who else would it be with Ched at the wheel and Lelanea unlikely to knock at a door to which she normally had full access? “It’s Dodger, sir. Can I come in?”
There came the sound of hesitation, some muttering, and then the door cracked open, just a bit. Those sorrow-filled eyes peered out at him. “Yes? What do you need?”
“I need to talk to you. About what happened.”
“No need to talk. I got the gist of your adventures from your report to the sheriff.” The door closed. From behind the wood and metal, Dodger heard a muffled, “Now leave me be. I’m very busy.”
“Sir.” Dodger knocked again. “You said if I ever needed anything, I could come to you. Well, sir, I need to talk. Please.”
The door cracked again, wider this time, and a profoundly mournful-looking professor loomed in the doorway. Dodger considered himself a world-class moper, but the doc had him beat by many years and many miles. The older man was the epitome of pitiful. His normally cherubic features were drawn long with grief. His usually bright eyes were dull with sorrow. The remorseful Dodger had nothing on the wretched thing that was Professor H. J. Dittmeyer.
“Certainly,” the doc said. “Come in.”
Dodger nodded his thanks and entered, closing the door after himself.
“First of all,” the doc said before Dodger could begin, “I owe you an apology. That equipment wasn’t thoroughly tested.”
“It wasn’t the equipment-” Dodger tried to say.
“No,” the professor said over him. “I want to get this off my chest. I sent you and that poor man into the field as human guinea pigs. I can never make up for it.” The doc perched himself at his stool, his chunky legs swinging back and forth as he made his confession, leaving him looking more like a contrite schoolboy than like Dodger’s boss man. “I think, perhaps, I am just used to employing Ched as the subject for my experiments. After all, the man can’t … well, you know. I take his unique ability for granted sometimes. I forget that not everyone is as resilient as our dear Ched.”
“No, sir. I reckon we aren’t.”
“Even though Ched had used the belt before, it was only during one clinical trial. And not for very long. Not that there were complications. It was the subject who forced us to cease testing. Ched didn’t like being little. It made him uncomfortable.”
“Speaking from experience, it is an uncomfortable feeling.”
“Shcared sheetlessh was the phrase he used, I think.” The professor tried out a little giggle, but it sounded just as sad as he looked. “I guess what I am trying to say is I’m sorry for causing your friend’s death.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It was my faulty equipment.”
“You didn’t know that kid was gonna crush the belt like that.”
“And you certainly didn’t know that the proximity of the expended energy from my belt would cause his malfunctioning belt to overcompensate for the damage and translate the incoming fluctuations so far around the spectrum that it ended up shrinking him further rather than enlarging him.” It was a logical conclusion, and one that Dodger would normally keep to himself. But he supposed it was fruitless to hide such things from the doc. The man had ways of dragging your true mental power from you, even if it came along kicking and screaming.
“That’s also true … and a clever deduction.” And finally, at last, the doc faced Dodger, and that gleam of delight returned to the man’s weary eyes. “Mr. Dodger. The depth of intellect you continue to display never ceases to amaze me.”
“Thank you, sir, but it was really just a lucky guess.”
“Lucky guess, my foot. That was pure genius.”
“Then you agree it wasn’t your fault.”
The professor tipped his head to one side, considering the offer. “Only if you agree it wasn’t your fault. After all, I can’t have my best man trying to work with such an undeserved weight on his conscience.” The doc leaned in closer to add, “Especially when you already have so much worry on your mind.”
“I suppose I can agree to that. Sir.”
“Excellent.” The doc rubbed his hands together, ready to get back to work. He wasn’t his old self, yet. But he would be. In time. “Tell Ched to set a course southeast, if you please. There’s an apothecary I must visit in order to finish some work. He’ll know the one. And I hope you don’t mind waiting another night for your sleep aid. Turns out I didn’t have as much melatonin as I thought.”
“Not a problem, sir. I’ll tell Ched to plot a course.” Dodger made to leave, pulling open the door, only to find Lelanea on her way in.
“Mr. Dodger,” she said. “Just the man I was looking for.”
Dodger couldn’t help but smile. “Those are the kind of words every man wants to hear from a beautiful woman.”
Lelanea snorted at his implication, but he could see her trying to repress a grin. “Actually, I don’t need you. I need the homing device Uncle lent you. I understand you wish to keep tabs on us.”
“It isn’t like that.”
“I’m sure it isn’t. But I need to work on making duplicates for the rest of the crew. Per your request.”
“So are we doing what I ask now?”
“Only when it pertains to my areas of expertise.”
“Ah, of course.” Dodger pulled the metal button from his lapel, passing it off to the young lady.
She handed it to her uncle, who explained, “I’m sorry to report that they don’t work when the subject is deep underground, so they might not be as reliable as we first imagined. Just another failure on my part, I suppose.” The professor tossed the thing to his cluttered desk before holding his hand out again, wiggling his fingers in request. “And the other one.”
“The other one. There should’ve been two.”
Dodger eyed the man for a moment. “The second one was with Duncan. And he’s gone.”
“Really? You didn’t get it back from him?”
The doc rubbed his chin. “And, just to clarify a point, the lad was already gone when we joined up with you?”
“How odd.” The professor leapt down from his stool and went to the metal flower near the door—the speaking tube. After pressing some hidden button, the flower opened and the professor shouted into it, “Mr. Torque! I need you here. Now!”
“Is there something wrong?” Dodger asked.
“Not wrong. Just odd.”
“What are you thinking, Uncle?” Lelanea asked.
The professor rubbed his chin again as he said, “Well, you see when we caught up with Mr. Dodger and that bleeding fellow, Mr. Torque claimed there were-”
The sound of the door slamming interrupted the professor’s explanation as Mr. Torque stormed into the room.
“Well?” the metal man demanded. “What do you want now? I don’t have all day.”
“Mr. Torque,” the doc said, “bring up your sub-aural detection scope. And translate it to a tone we all can hear. I want to confirm something.”
“You want me to do what?”
“You heard me. Make it snappy.”
“Snappy! You want me to stand here like a metal moron, beeping for your amusement, and you want me to make it snappy? Why I have never been so insulted in all my life.”
“Why me? Have I harmed you in some way? Why must you torture me with your continual rudeness? Why can’t you just be obedient for once?”
Torque thought about this for a moment, then made a sound very much like a child blowing a raspberry while he gave his creator the old two-finger salute.
Atop this moment of anarchy, Lelanea said, as calmly as Dodger had ever heard her say anything, “Swordfish.”
At the word, Mr. Torque ceased arguing. In truth, he ceased everything. His body went slack, his eyes lost their spark of life, even his mustache stopped that nervous twitching to which Dodger was just now getting accustomed.
“Lelanea!” the professor shouted.
“What just happened?” Dodger asked.
“I shut the blasted thing down,” she said, then reached out to press upon the chest of the now-silent Mr. Torque. A small keyboard flipped out of the metal man’s sternum—a typewriter breastplate.
“That was just rude,” the doc said.
“Rude is not cooperating when set to a task.” Lelanea punched at the keys with some concentration. “Now that I bypassed his personality settings, we can access his functions without the distractions of his mouth.”
“How did you shut him down?” Dodger asked.
“It’s a verbal command code,” the professor confessed with some shame. “I installed a shut-off word in case I needed him to revert to manual. I don’t employ it often, because I don’t like what it makes of him, or me. But in this case, I’m afraid my niece is correct. We don’t have time to argue with the hunk of junk. We need his technical abilities, not his opinions.”
Lelanea punched a few more keys and stepped back. “There we are. He should be on basic functions. Torque, can you hear me?”
The metal man raised its head and stood straight. “Yes, mum.” The voice was emotionless, unlike the feminine lilt of Torque’s normal mechanical tones, and the words brought an eerie light to its eyes, which glowed and faded with each syllable.
“Access sub-aural scope; play the tones aloud,” Lelanea said as she pressed three or four more keys. “At these decibels, if you please.”
“Yes, mum. As you request.”
Dodger waited with the professor as the metal man processed the request. All at once, the room filled with a quick throbbing pulse, a strong lub followed by a softer dub, like a heart beating in double time.
“Torque,” the doc said, “locate the source of the strongest frequency.”
The clockwork man stirred with jerky movements, shifting this way and that until it settled in the direction of the metal button on Dittmeyer’s desk. Torque raised its hand to Dodger’s S.N.I.F.E.R. across the room. “The primary source of frequency is two meters from this access point.”
“Eliminate that input source, please.”
“As you command.”
The throbbing in the air changed at once from a strong double heart beat to a weak pulse barely discernable from the gears and whirs of the clockwork man himself.
“Ah!” the professor shouted. “As I suspected!”
“What is that?” Dodger asked.
“The second button.” The professor nudged his niece to one side and began wildly punching at the keys in the metal man’s chest.
“But that button disappeared with Duncan.”
“That might be the case,” Lelanea said, “but it would seem that the thing is still giving off a signal.”
“And judging by the weakness of the pulse, it is either very far away or …” The doc didn’t finish the thought, instead turning his attention to finishing his sequence on the keyboard. “There. I do so hate manual mode. Hard on the fingers, as it were.”
“That’s why you have me, Uncle,” Lelanea said, taking up the older man’s hands and massaging his fingers.
“You’re too good to me, Ludda.”
Dodger cocked his head and eyed Lelanea at this curious pet name. She thoroughly pretended to ignore him.
“Torque,” the doc said. “Use those algorithms to home in on the source of the second pulse.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Mr. Torque asked.
“Sir is aware that the calculations are into the negatives. They go below the standard threshold.”
“I am aware of that.”
This would be the point at which Mr. Torque—the normal Mr. Torque, that was to say—would rant and rave about how such a job was beneath him. But no, this metal shell of the clockwork man just nodded its head and said, “As you command, sir.”
“Below the standard threshold?” Lelanea asked.
“Certainly. Makes sense when one thinks about it.”
Lelanea took on a far-off look, as if she really were thinking about it. In a flash, her eyes went wide and she announced, “Of course! Uncle, you’re a genius.”
As Mr. Torque shifted in its herky-jerky manner about the room, Dodger turned the question over in his mind. Why would the professor use negative algorithms to locate the second button? How could something have a negative value? No, wait now. Not negative value. A negative size. The negative calculations meant the machine was searching for something smaller than the given threshold. Which meant Torque was looking for something that ran backwards in relative size.
Without warning, Torque raised its metal hand, pointed at Dodger’s trousers, and claimed with some level of authority in its cold voice, “The secondary input source is less than one meter from this access point.”
“Excellent!” the professor shouted and clapped.
“I don’t understand,” Dodger said. And it wasn’t a lie. Though he had worked out some of the details, he just couldn’t see how the second button had anything to do with him. “I told you. I don’t have it.” He turned out his pockets to prove the point. “See? I don’t have it.”
“I know you don’t. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t on you.”
“Take off your pants,” Lelanea demanded.
“What?” Dodger asked.
“This is no time to be shy, Mr. Dodger,” the professor said. “A man’s life hangs by a very, very small thread.”
“A man’s life …” Dodger almost gasped as he finally grasped what was happening here. “You think Duncan might still be alive?”
“Yes. But the only way to know is to locate him before it’s too late. Now, take off your pants. Carefully. We don’t need to jostle him any more than he’s already been tossed about.”
Thankful he’d chosen to sport underwear that day, Dodger slipped off his pants and handed them to the young woman.
Lelanea and her uncle held the trousers out to Torque, leg by leg by pocket by crotch until the metal man announced that the signal was coming from near Dodger’s right front pocket. Dittmeyer grabbed a glass slide from his microscope and scraped it across the area, holding it out to Torque with each progressive scrape until the machine at last confirmed that the source of the pulse had indeed moved from the pants to the slide. With the slide in hand, he dashed over to his microscope, slipped it into place and set to working the various controls.
“Ah, yes, we have a winner,” the doc said.
“Marvelous,” Lelanea said.
“Is that him, then?” Dodger asked.
“Yes, Mr. Dodger,” the professor said. “If you will please get on the tube and ask Ched to stop the train. The next step is going to take some room.”
“How much room we talkin’?”
“Rather a lot of room, really. I’m afraid that, for this, we will have to disembark.”