Small Comforts, Big Hearts
In which Dodger’s crew provides succor
For a man who lingered in a microscopic state for several hours only to return from the brink of death by the same science that put him there, Duncan took everything in remarkable stride. He also put away five bowls of Feng’s best sukiyaki. But Dodger couldn’t fault the man for that.
It didn’t take long to relate the events, even as complicated as they were. With his usual flourish of orating skills, the professor painted a beautifully worded narrative of the whole affair, from the assistant’s betrayal to the apparent death of the deputy, at which Dodger translated it into laymen’s terms for the bewildered deputy.
“Pardon me for repeating myself, sir,” Duncan said. “But that is just one hell of a story.”
“I know!” the professor exclaimed. “It’s excitement in living form. And you lived it. How marvelous for you.”
“Shoundsh like jusht another day to me,” Ched said.
“Oh, ignore him. He’s just jealous he missed out on the adventure. I told you to go, but no, you had to be a big coward!”
Ched shrugged rather than argue the point.
“How are you feeling now?” Dodger asked.
Duncan pushed away from the table, looking satisfied at last. “Much better. In fact, I feel a good sight better than I have for some time.” He lifted the mirror Miss Lelanea had lent him, marveling at his sudden gift of youth. “I can’t believe how young I look. And feel. I still don’t claim to understand it all.”
“Neither do I,” the doc said. “I have never seen a number eight reverse a subject’s age in such a manner, but I suspect it has something to do with your recent exposure to the infinitium rays combined with the level of alcohol in your bloodstream.”
“But I haven’t touched a drop in weeks.”
“Nevertheless, the body keeps the memory of such things, doesn’t it? Yes. I believe your recent bouts of intoxication had an influence on the effects of my medicinal compound. After all, I’ve seen evidence of it before.” The professor raised his brow at the driver.
Ched ignored it just as well as he did everything else.
“There are a few new rules for you to follow, though,” the professor said, returning his attention to Duncan. “This belt is very different from the shrinking belt. It is keeping you large, you see?”
“I think so,” Duncan said.
“This means that your normal size—your real size, I’m afraid—is very, very, very, very small.”
Duncan seemed unsure about this. “How small is very, very, very, very?”
“I can’t be certain, but I think you were in the range of point zero, zero, zero nine millimeters. I think. But I may be off a fraction.”
Duncan looked to Dodger for a translation.
“Picture the size of a flea,” Dodger said.
“That’s pretty small,” Duncan said.
“You could be a flea on a flea’s flea.”
Duncan sat back, staring blindly at the belt around his waist as he absorbed this news.
“Are you going to be all right?” the professor asked.
“I suppose so,” Duncan said. “I can never take it off?”
“If you take it off, you will revert to your normal, smaller size. So I’m afraid that means no, you can’t remove it. Ever. But you can employ it to change your size if you wish.”
“Like the other belt?”
“Very much so.”
“Will the thing go small with me?”
“Of course. I told you it was special. It works both ways. Left, you get bigger and right, you get smaller.”
“I can get bigger than this?”
“Not by much. I’m afraid you are near the upper limit right now. You might squeeze another few feet out of it, but you can go as small as you like.”
“As small as I like?”
“Yes. And the same rules apply as from before. You can shrink something with you as long as it remains within six inches of your field, but you can’t enlarge something beyond its original size.”
“I understand. I think. That’s a lot of stuff to remember.”
“That is understandable. You take as long as you need to work it out while we head back. Speaking of which …” The doc looked to Ched again.
“Perhapsh I should go and get the enginesh up again,” Ched said.
“Wait,” Duncan called after Ched.
The driver turned in the doorway, hooking his thumbs in his overalls as he waited.
“Where are we going?” Duncan asked.
“Back to Shunnyvale,” Ched said.
Duncan’s high spirits drooped at this announcement. “Do I have to go back?”
“You don’t want to go home?” the professor asked.
“Sir, I don’t reckon I have a home anymore.” With difficulty, the man related his tale of woe, this time admitting that he had indeed taken his wife’s life by accident. He explained his descent into the bottle, the loss of his job, his house, and eventually the love of life itself. “It got pretty bad toward the end. The breaking point came a few weeks ago, when I was so drunk that I couldn’t find Mabel’s headstone. My own wife’s grave, and I was too hammered to remember where it was. That’s when I decided enough was enough.”
“What a sad story,” Miss Lelanea said.
“How terrible,” the professor said. “But I don’t see why you shouldn’t return to Sunnyvale and your wife’s resting place. From what I understand, they think you a hero now. I’m sure you’ll be rewarded and maybe even returned to your former place of glory.”
“I realize that, sir,” Duncan said. “But that’s the trouble. Isn’t it?”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“If I go back, then what’s to say I won’t fall back into the same mess where I was before? What’s to say I’ll stay in their good graces? Bad memories don’t just evaporate because you do one good deed.”
Dodger shuddered at the statement, because he was living proof of it.
“But you’re a hero to them,” Lelanea said.
“And what makes me a hero?” Duncan asked. “What I did or what they think I did? Because they are two very different things.”
“You practically sacrificed yourself for-” Dodger started.
“I was trying to die,” Duncan said over him. “Can’t you see that? Do you think I really cared if we got our hands on the town’s money? The truth is, I went with you because I hoped something like this would happen. That either the equipment was faulty or William would shoot me … or anything would happen to end the misery of my life. I just wanted to die.”
The room went quiet in the wake of his outburst, but only for the briefest moment. While Dodger had no idea how to address the man now that he had all but confessed his desperate actions, the professor was unmoved.
“Piddlecock,” the professor said.
“Excuse me?” Duncan asked.
“To quote your banker friend, piddlecock and balderdash. For a suicidal man, you sure as Hades cling to life about as tenaciously as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Duncan looked to the floor, away from the doc, as if made uncomfortable by the accusation of his willing survival. “I got lucky.”
“Lucky? Lucky? Getting lucky is finding your spanner after you’ve set your mind to buying a new one. What happened to you was more than just dumb luck, Mr. Duncan. You were struck with mortal wounds, which you proceeded to bear for almost five hours without any medical aid. Wounds that would’ve killed a weaker man in minutes. Wounds that I must confess I wasn’t sure I could mend, even with my miraculous medicinal compounds. Now, in my head, I realized that perhaps there is some explanation in the fluctuations of your size that assisted your survival in this case. But in my heart …” the professor paused as he lifted his hand to his chest, “good sir, in my heart, I feel it was something more. I think it was you. I think you had the strength and courage to survive because you wanted to live. And I think you still do.”
Whereas before, the meeting room was just quiet, now it was still enough to hear the soft ticks and tocks of Mr. Torque’s inner workings. The professor had made his point with great efficiency, so much so that everyone seemed to hold their breath, all waiting to hear what Duncan had to say about it. This moment stretched into what seemed hours, days, an eternity.
And so they waited.
Mr. Torque ticked and tocked.
No one made a sound.
Until Lelanea broke the tension by reaching out to stroke the man’s hanging head.
“There is no shame in living after the one you loved has passed on,” she said. “It’s not easy. I know. It takes both strength and courage. I think uncle is right; you are both strong and courageous.”
Duncan raised his damp eyes to hers.
Over the soft clicks of the clockwork man’s gears, Dodger could just about hear Duncan’s heart breaking.
“She was my whole life,” Duncan whispered.
“She still is,” Lelanea said, and pulled Duncan to her. “She always will be.”
He buried his head in her shoulder, the sounds of weeping filling the quiet meeting room. To be truthful, as touching as it was, the scene was a bit awkward for Dodger. He felt nothing but sympathy for both parties, yet was still embarrassed by their intimate exchange. It didn’t help that he, too, felt the pricking sting of oncoming tears. Much more of this, and Dodger would be just as weepy as the deputy. Thankfully, Duncan didn’t cry for long. After a few minutes, his weeping wound down to that choked exhaustion that follows these kinds of emotional eruptions. Pulling away from Lelanea’s shoulder, he wiped at his wet and sheepish-looking face.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Never apologize for crying on a friend’s shoulder,” Lelanea said. “Especially when that shoulder belongs to a woman who offered it to you willingly.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“To be truthful,” the professor said, “it’s probably best that you don’t return permanently to Sunnyvale. You see, the belt you wear is powered by the photovoltaic effect.”
“The what?” Duncan asked, once again confused.
“The photovoltaic effect. The belt draws the energy needed to work from exposure to solar radiation.”
Duncan remained as perplexed as ever.
“It’s powered by the sun,” Dodger said.
“The sun?” Duncan asked as he looked down to the belt again. “Well if that don’t beat all.”
“Indeed. But to be fair, it wasn’t my idea. I stole it from a Frenchman. Point being, as a result of the belt’s nature, perhaps Sunnyvale isn’t the best place for you to remain. One week in that dreary place and your solar cells would run quite dry. And we wouldn’t want that happening. Would we?”
“Question is, what do we do with you now if not take you home?”
“I don’t know. I can never repay you for saving my life, but you are welcome to everything I own.”
“Don’t be preposterous. I don’t want a single penny from you. Why, if I went around charging a fee every time I saved a life, I’d … well …” Dittmeyer paused to touch his chin as he pondered the idea. “Well I’d be a sight wealthier. Wouldn’t I? Perhaps I should consider going into the business of medicine instead of just giving away my compounds.”
“Not thish again,” Ched said with a groan.
“Remember, Uncle,” Lelanea said, “you don’t like working as a physician.”
The professor furrowed his brow. “Why was that again? Because after today, it’s sounding like a grand idea. Folks coming to me with their problems instead of me having to chase them down. Steady payments. It’s money in the bank, that’s what it is! I mean if I’m going to go about treating people, I might as well get professional rates for it.”
Lelanea huffed. “You don’t like being a personal physician because …” her words faded into a hushed murmur as she leaned forward and whispered the rest into the doc’s ear.
Whatever she whispered must’ve been something of an embarrassing measure, because the doc’s eyes went saucer wide and his ears turned beet red. Dodger would’ve wondered what the big deal was about too if he hadn’t caught the doc’s glance flick, almost imperceptibly, to Lelanea’s nether regions and back again.
“Oh my!” he gasped. “How could I have forgotten such a dreadful thing?”
Lelanea patted his hand in sympathy. “General medicine isn’t for everyone.”
“I’ll say. Too much … um … complicated plumbing involved for my tastes. How on earth should I know what is supposed to go on down there? I don’t own one. It would rather be like never setting foot on a ship yet claiming to be a fully qualified sailor.”
“I wouldn’t shay that, shir,” Ched said. “Don’t have to own a ship to be a pirate. I myshelf have shailed the high sheas of passhionate pirashee between many a lady’sh sheetsh.”
“And I don’t remember asking you to mix my metaphors. Thank you very much.” The professor looked to Duncan again. “Where were we?”
“You were telling me how I can repay you for rescuing me. And I don’t just mean saving my life. I mean rescuing me from myself. From everything. I owe you so much, sir.”
“Ah, yes, the question of payment. Again, Mr. Duncan, you don’t owe me a thing. I consider it an honor to have helped such a pleasant young man. I mean old man. What do I mean?”
Duncan wasn’t amused by the generous offer. “I won’t take a handout, sir. At least let me work off my debt.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but I wouldn’t know in what manner to employ you.”
“Well, I’m quick with a gun, and I know my way around a kitchen pretty good.”
“But I already have both a crack-shot gunman and a world-class chef.”
“Is there nothing I can do for you?”
“You can be happy.” The professor smiled as if instructing the man on how it worked. “That’s all I ever want from anyone. Just be happy.”
Duncan did just the opposite. Instead bearing a big grin and setting off on his way, he gave a gruff frown and stood his ground. “I can’t be happy knowing I have a debt with you, Professor Dittmeyer. I owe you and your crew my entire life. I need to pay you back. Somehow.”
The professor lost his smile. “Oh dear. Then I’m afraid we’re at a bit of an impasse.”
“I have an idea,” Dodger said.
The conversation ground to a halt as all eyes turned to Dodger.