On the Run
In which Dodger formulates a plan
“When were you plannin’ on telling ush that part?” Ched asked.
“I wasn’t,” Feng said. He looked to Dodger again as he crushed the paper on which he had been writing in his fist. “I was planning on talking to Dodger about it before I left.”
“I see,” Dodger said.
“I don’t,” the doc said. “He must think we are idiots. I mean, what on earth would make that man possibly think that we would just wander, willy-nilly, into such an obvious …” The doc’s words drifted away under the rumble of distant thunder as he pieced together what the rest of the crew had already figured out. “Oh, I do see. You were going to talk to Dodger about it in private, because you knew Dodger would willingly wander into a trap if there was a chance he could rescue Boon.”
“And he was right,” Dodger said. “Let’s get this train in motion, or we won’t make our deadline. We shouldn’t keep our host waiting.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lelanea said. “You just said it was a trap.”
“I realize that, ma’am. But now at least we know what the bait is. As well as the prize.” Dodger shut the outer cab door and glanced around a moment, taking stock of the situation. “First things first. Ched, get at the helm and get us moving. That storm is gonna be a gully washer, but I trust you can keep us on course.”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said. “I reckon I can keep her on the shtraight and narrow while you fight the good fight.” The driver slipped through the door toward the engine cab.
“Speaking of fights.” Dodger turned his attention to the Celestial. “Feng? You need to explain what is coming for you so that we can be ready.”
“Demons,” Feng said. “Demonic assassins, to be more exact.”
“Demons riding on a storm?” the doc asked. “Well, that is a new one to me.”
“It’s more complicated than that. They aren’t just riding the storm. Lei Gong and his gang are the storm.”
Dodger tipped his head to the Chinese names. Names he recognized thanks to years of reading mythology from many cultures around the world. “Lei Gong? The Duke of Thunder?”
Feng nodded to Dodger. “You never cease to amaze, Mr. Dodger.”
“I appreciate that, but back to the demons. I thought Lei Gong was-”
“Just a myth?” Feng asked over Dodger.
“I was going to say a god, but that will do.”
“You are correct on both accounts. The God of Thunder and his family are, technically, part of my culture’s mythos. This Lei Gong is a vengeance demon that took on the persona of the myths. Made them come alive, as it were. He and his ilk offer their services to mortals in exchange for life essence.”
“Which means?” the doc asked.
“Folks pay them part of their remaining life to settle debts.”
“Then they are hired guns,” Lelanea said.
“That is one way of putting it.”
“So it’s not a dragon?” Mr. Torque asked.
“No,” Feng said. “Not everything Chinese has to do with dragons.”
“Then you lot should stop painting them all over everything.”
“Demons,” Dodger said, nodded his understanding just as the train jolted into motion. “You must owe a hell of a debt for someone to send a pack of demons after you.”
“You have no idea,” Feng said with a cocky grin. “But, as I said, that is a story for another day. Right now, we have to prepare for their arrival. You folks wanted to stand and fight? Well, you’re going to get a fight you will never forget. If you live long enough to make it a memory.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” Lelanea said.
“Challenge isn’t the half of it. Lei Gong is bad enough, but we have three others to contend with. His wife, Dian Wu, is able to conjure lightning at will. Their twin sons, Youn and Yoo, are in control of rain and wind, respectively.”
“They have the whole storm theme quite sewn up,” the doc said. “How marvelous.”
“A dragon would’ve been marvelous,” Mr. Torque said, crossing his arms, obviously unimpressed. “Demons are just blasé.”
“Blasé?” Feng asked. “Did you not hear me say ‘demonic assassins’?”
“You have to admit,” the doc said, “this isn’t the first time we’ve faced off against demons.”
“Not these kinds of demons,” Feng said. “You’ve fought the diluted bastard children of the kind of demon Lei Gong is.”
Mr. Torque gave a tinny sigh. “Then, definitely not a dragon?”
“No! But I can promise you’re going to wish we were up against a dragon. Because at least a dragon has a weakness. These foes don’t even know what the word ‘weak’ means. No chink in the armor. No eyehole in the helmet. No deadly love for coffee.”
“I hate to be the only one who …” Dodger started, then paused as he went back over that last line. “Did you say deadly love for coffee?”
“It is a well-known fact,” the doc said, “that dragons can’t resist a good dark roast. But unfortunately for them, the seed of the Coffea plan is toxic to their physiology.”
“Like an allergy?” Dodger asked.
“If you know of any allergy that makes your face melt when you come into contact with the offending allergen, then yes. Yes, it is just like an allergy.”
“Okay,” Dodger said, holding up his hands in defeat. “I don’t want to seem like a coward, but I have to admit that these storm-riding demons sound right frightening to me. No wonder you’ve been on the run.”
“It’s not too late for that either,” Feng said. “Just let me go, and they will sense I have left. Lei Gong and his gang will pass you on by. You’ll be safe, and-”
“You’ll be gone,” Lelanea said.
Feng looked to the floor rather than face them. “Yes.”
“And you won’t come back,” the doc said.
“I can’t,” Feng said. “Not after they know I’ve been here. They will mark this place.”
“You opened yourself to them by trying to help us,” Lelanea said. “We will share the consequences, because we are family.”
Feng finally looked back up to them. “That’s exactly why I don’t want you involved. Because you’re family. You don’t know how dangerous these demons are. They aren’t just out for blood, they are out for vengeance, and they will rip through each one of you to get to me.”
As if to emphasize his point, a great flash of lightning lit the cab to a brighter degree, followed by a tearing clap of thunder.
“Then we will just have to rip right back,” Lelanea said. “I suppose a claw for a claw is in order here.”
Feng’s eyes shot wide as he shook his head at her. “No. I can’t ask such a thing of you.”
“You aren’t asking. I am offering. You’ve always told me it was a gift, not a curse. Then consider this action just a lady sharing a gift.”
“Ludda?” the doc asked. “Are you certain about this?”
“If I can help in that way,” she said, “then I am willing.”
“That’s more like it,” Mr. Torque said, clapping his metal hands in glee. “It’s about time this got interesting.”
Dodger looked from Lelanea to Feng and back again. As far as he knew, there was only one curse she could exploit in order to help out. Only one gift she could share. “Did she just offer what I think she just offered?”
“Yes,” Lelanea said. “She did. And how about the rest of you? What do you plan on doing to help?”
“I know I won’t be much use in combat,” the doc said. “But I have a number of inventions that should prove helpful, even against your high-powered demons. The silver ammunition ought to have some effect on them, and I have a few electrical-dampening contraptions that could aid you, Mr. Dodger.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Dodger said. “I don’t reckon we have a whole lot of time to learn to use new equipment, and I am just as likely to blow myself up as I am to figure it out. I think I will stick with my guns.” He felt Lelanea’s eyes burning twin holes through his jacket, but he didn’t correct himself. As far as he was concerned, the guns were his as long as he held the job.
The doc cleared his throat. “Do remember that silver is deadly to many kinds of beasts. Even the ones on our side.”
Which explained why the woman was staring him down. Dodger swallowed his contrition rather than apologize aloud.
He took a moment to look about the meeting cab, to the doors and windows and roof hatch. “I know we are in a rush, but I wish we could stop and get somewhere more secure. This train is gonna be hard to defend with so many openings.”
“She isn’t as vulnerable as you think,” the doc said. He stepped over to the nearest window and pushed a small button just beneath the ledge. A metal shutter rolled over the window with a resounding snap.
Dodger pointed to the shutter. “Do they all have those?”
The doc nodded with a proud smile. “Every door, hatch and window is equipped with a steel shutter coated in silver on the outside, to keep trouble at bay.”
“And you didn’t think this was something your security man should’ve known about?”
The proud smile fell into a guilty grimace. “I’m sorry. It just never came up.”
Dodger couldn’t get mad at the man. And not just because the doc was his boss. It was just sort of hard to get worked up over something that probably seemed so trivial to such a vast intelligence. “Not a problem, sir.”
“I suppose I would do well to tell you that she is also equipped with a LAD—a Lightning Absorption and Dampening system. I’ve installed a set of special rods along the Sleipnir’s roof to draw off the undesirable effects of a thunderstorm.”
“Oh no.” The doc chuckled at Dodger’s naivety. “These are better than just plain old lightning rods. These actively attract and wick away the effects of a lightning strike. It’s quite a sight to behold. They practically suck strikes out of the very air … Why are you grinning like that?”
Dodger couldn’t hide his pleasure at the news. If the dampening system worked the way the doc claimed, then Dodger reckoned the odds had just gone up in his favor. “Thanks for that information, sir. Feng? How long do we have before they get here?”
Feng eyed the non-shuttered windows, wincing at the steady flashes of bright light. “Half an hour? Maybe less. Getting the Sleipnir in motion bought us some time, but not much.”
The grin spread wider.
“Dodger?” the doc asked. “What are you thinking?”
Dodger looked up at the hatch. “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammad …”
The doc joined him in staring up at the hatch. “Then Mohammad must go to the mountain.” They lowered their eyes together, facing one another as the doc furrowed his brow at Dodger. “Are you sure that is wise?”
“It’s the only choice we have. We can’t fight a storm in here. They will tear this place apart. We have to go where the storm is.”
“What are you two yammering on about?” Mr. Torque asked.
“The roof,” Lelanea said. “He wants to take the fight onto the roof.”
“A brawl on the top of a moving train with a couple of demonic assassins that can control the elements of the weather?” Mr. Torque gave a tin whistle of a snort. “You’re mad.”
“I might just be,” Dodger said. “But a touch of crazy might be just what is needed here.” Dodger stared up at the hatch again. He wasn’t sure how it would work, and he doubted it had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. But he was willing to give it a try. For Feng’s sake.
As well as Boon’s.