In which Dodger leaps into action.
The momentum changed one last time, pitching Dodger forward, tight against his desk. There he grabbed a handful of wood and held on, grateful that the doc had had the foresight to bolt down the majority of the furniture. It was bad enough dealing with the chair knocking him about. Things would’ve been a sight worse had the bed decided to follow Dodger’s impromptu travels about the room.
“What’s going on?” Dodger shouted at Boon.
I’ll try to find out, Boon whispered, and was gone.
Dodger clung to the desk while he winced to the tooth-aching squeal of every brake on the line being employed at the same time. Just as quickly as it began, the excitement was over, and gravity returned to normal. Which meant Dodger returned to the floor, despite his best to attempt the contrary.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Dodger said as he lay sprawled on his back.
After a few minutes to collect his energy, and his pride, Dodger gathered himself from the floor, limped to the corner of the room and slammed his fist against the call button for the tubes. The bud beside the button bloomed, giving Dodger a mouthpiece to speak into.
“Ched!” he shouted into the metal blossom. “What’d we hit?”
“Nothin’,” claimed the driver’s tinny voice across the communication tube.
“Then what was that?”
“Shounded like an eshploshion. I’d ashk the bosh man. Won’t be the firsht time.”
“Doc!” Dodger yelled.
“Ched,” Dodger said. “I’m going to check on him. Keep your piece handy just in case.”
“Shure thing, sharge,” the not-dead man said.
Ched sounded surprisingly calm. Did nothing faze the man? Dodger supposed that once you faced down death, and won, everything else was a walk in the park. With a grunt, Dodger pulled his door open and limped into the hallway. His right hip was throbbing with a dull pain, an old injury awoken by the spontaneous one-man tango he’d performed all over his room. He ignored the burning sensation creeping down his leg as he limped toward the front of the line.
The doc is unconscious, Boon whispered just as Dodger stepped into the hallway of the quarters cab.
“Where?” Dodger asked.
His lab. And he must’ve hit his head. There is a lot of blood, and some sort of gas is filling the car.
Head wounds were vascular; there was always a lot of blood, even with a little knock on the noggin. But that didn’t make it any better. Especially if the unconscious man was breathing in whatever gas Boon spoke of.
Dodger flipped an about-face and picked up his limp to a wounded trot. “I’m on it. Check on Lelanea and Feng. Make sure they’re fine.”
“It’s nothing a little hot water and rest can’t fix. Make sure Torque is in one piece while you’re at it. And get Ched to send him on down the line if he ain’t already. We might need his strength to lift things.”
The ghost slipped away before Dodger could bicker about being called sir.
The umbilical between the two sleeper cars was distorted but passable. Dodger stepped over the twisted frame and into the empty hallway outside Lelanea’s cabin. He resisted the urge to see if she was inside. Boon could check in on her just as easily. He was better equipped to sneak in and out of rooms without disturbing folks, and it made the spirit feel useful. As long as Boon made sure she was sound, Dodger was happy to let her gather her own wits in her own time.
Dodger shoved the connecting door open to find the next link in an even worse condition. Being closer to the epicenter of the trauma, the umbilical between the lab and second sleeper car was considerably more twisted than its sister. He picked his way past the warped frame and torn canvas, stopping to pound on the lab door.
“Doc!” he shouted. “You in there?”
His only answer was a thick green smoke pouring from under the door. Manners seen to, Dodger tried to open the door. It didn’t budge. He laid into it, shoving hard with his aching shoulder and burning hip. At last, the door wrenched open with a screech, and Dodger toppled inside, where the green fog all but swallowed him.
The fog was tasteless and odorless, which in Dodger’s experience meant it was probably dangerous as well. This was proven after a quick sniff of the stuff left him teary eyed and with a chest full of fire. He lifted his shirt over his face, breathing in shallow, burning gulps through the mesh of the fabric as he kept low to the floor on his hands and knees. (The safety tactic worked for smoke from fires. Why not strange green fogs?)
“Doc!” he shouted again.
A groan reached his ears. Unable to see anything more than a few inches in front of him, Dodger fumbled about, following the rising and falling moans of pain. He ran his hands blindly across the floor until his fingers landed on something that bore the distinct feel of human flesh. Hoping it was the professor, and not some strange experiment gone awry, Dodger yanked the handful to him. The body of the doc slid into foggy view.
And yes, there was blood.
“Let’s get you out of here,” Dodger said as he hauled the doc across the floor. He wrestled the groaning man through the twisted connection and into the clear air of the hallway beyond.
“Uncle!” Lelanea shouted from the far end of the bogie.
“Get the door,” Dodger commanded. “He needs some air.”
Lelanea held the door as Dodger scooped up the doc and hauled him through the opening. The morning air was a blessing to his own burning lungs; surely it would do the unconscious man a world of good. He laid the professor on a patch of soft grass just a few feet from the train before he turned to head back inside.
“He’s got a head wound,” he said as he passed Lelanea. “I’m sure you know what to do.”
“I’ll get the med kit,” she said, trying to join him again on the train.
“No.” Dodger wedged his arm between her and the doorway, her soft bosom coming to rest against his forearm. “The safest place for you is off the train. Preferably as far from here as you can get.”
“But I need-”
“You need to listen to me,” he said. “We don’t know what that green fog is, nor if the whole line is gonna blow. We don’t know what happened, and the only man who does is bleeding to death in the grass.”
“I will need the kit to dress his wound.”
“I can grab the kit. I know where it is.” Dodger felt a little lie wouldn’t hurt anyone at a time like this. “Stay here and keep an eye on him and your pretty rump off this line until I say it’s safe.”
She smirked as if amused by his bravado. “Yes, sir.”
Dodger once again didn’t have time to argue about the perfunctory title. That would have to wait. He needed to fetch the doc’s medicine bag and get it back out here, pronto. Dodger ducked back into the hallway, where the same green fog that filled the lab now crept along the length of the car.
What do you think it is? Boon asked in Dodger’s mind.
“I don’t know,” Dodger confessed. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket—Momma was right, they did come in handy—and wrapped it over the lower half of his face. “Help me find the doc’s bag. He needs seeing to before he bleeds out.”
Is it that bad?
“I hope not, but I’m not taking any chances.”
Boon’s spirit drifted away for a moment, then returned to Dodger just as he was picking his way past the warped umbilical connection.
The bag is about five feet inside the door, on the left-hand side, under his desk.
I also can’t find Feng.
This brought Dodger to a standstill. “Have you checked his room? The kitchen, I mean.”
I would if I could …
“What does that mean?”
I am unable to enter Feng’s domain. I don’t know why, but I can’t go beyond the doc’s lab. I’ve tried before, and today proves no exception.
“Can things never be simple?” Dodger asked. He made his way into the lab, where the gas had thinned out enough to provide a hazy view of the surroundings. He spied the bag just where Boon said it would be. Amidst a coughing fit, he grabbed it up and made for the door.
“Sharge!” Ched shouted from the doorway of the lab. “What in the world ish thish crap? It’sh as thick ash pea shoup.”
Thicker, Boon added.
“Indeed,” Dodger said. “Ched, take the doc’s bag out to Lelanea. I’m going to check on Feng.”
“You should let me, sharge,” Ched said. “Nothing personal, but you’re shtartin’ to shound a bit hoarsh from breathing thish shtuff.”
“I’ll be fine,” Dodger said between coughs. He tossed the bag at Ched. “That’s an order, soldier.”
“Shure, shure,” Ched said. He clutched the black medical bag to him and did as commanded. “Go on and get yourshelf killed. Shee how you like it.”
He has a point, Boon whispered. You should’ve let him search for Feng.
“I’ll be fine,” Dodger repeated as he pulled open the next door. “If this gas were lethal, I’d be dead by now.”
As he said it, he hoped it wasn’t as much of a lie as it sounded.
Dodger ignored the further grumbling of the vexed spirit, and the burning of his own lungs, as he stepped into the umbilical and inspected the door that led to the Celestial’s kitchen. Or rather, inspected a layer of parchments affixed to the door. Parchments that raised far more questions than they answered.
“I’ll be damned,” Dodger said with a heavy cough. “Well, that explains why you can’t pass through.”
“What is it?” Boon asked, his form solidifying in the midst of the fog.
“It’s a prayer petition.” Dodger pounded on the parchment-covered door a few times. “Feng!”
“Prayer? What for?”
“To ward off spirits, if I’m reading it right.” Dodger pounded on the door again. “Feng! Are you in there?”
“Spirits?” Boon asked. “Does that mean-”
“That Feng doesn’t like to be spied on?” a familiar voice asked. “Yes. Yes it does.”
Dodger whipped about to find the elderly Chinese man standing behind him in the depths of the lab. Despite the linen handkerchief he had wrapped about his face, and the gloom of the green fog, Feng’s smile shone from his eyes.
“Good to see you in one piece,” Dodger said.
“As well as you,” Feng said. He then turned his gaze to Boon, point blank, to add, “No offense meant by the petitions, Boon. I just never cared for the company of the dead.”
“None taken,” Boon said, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.
“Hang on now,” Dodger said. He hooked a thumb to the dead man in question. “You know about him?”
“I know about many things,” Feng said.
Dodger looked to Boon as he tilted his head to the foggy form of Feng. “He knows about you?”
“Apparently,” Boon said. “But I didn’t know he knew.”
“It’s true,” Feng said. “He doesn’t know I know what I know. You know?”
Dodger shook his head. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“As fun as this conversation is, I recommend we take it outside before both of us succumb to this peculiar gas.”
“Fine.” Dodger pointed at Feng. “But you and I are going to have a talk.”
“Yes, but not today.”
The certainty in his voice gave Dodger a chill. “Then when?”
“No one knows what will happen tomorrow. Do they?” Feng backed out of the way and lifted his arm in invitation to the exit. “Shall we?”
Dodger pushed past Feng, eager to return to the clean air beyond the line. He also came away with the sinking suspicion the man was lying. Not about knowing the truth of Boon’s lingering spirit, but about the other thing.
That Feng knew just what tomorrow held.