In which Dodger finds out what he never suspected
“Ever since you’ve joined our crew,” Feng said without turning about, “you both have repeatedly asked me how I know what I know and why I act so unusual at times. Well, time is the answer, you see.”
“What about time?” Dodger asked.
“I am out of it.”
Out of what? Boon asked from somewhere ahead of him. Thanks to the sunlight pouring through the windows, the spirit remained invisible, but Dodger could feel him lingering between himself and the cook.
“Out of time,” Feng said.
Dodger pushed through the quarters-cab door after the cook, wondering just what that meant.
You’re not that old, Boon said. You have plenty of time left.
Feng chuckled. “That is not exactly what I meant.”
“Out of time?” Dodger asked. “You mean you aren’t part of the normal course of things?”
“Very good, Mr. Dodger.”
Dodger thought he heard the spirit give a soft huff.
“And no, I’m not,” Feng said as he stepped through to the next quarters cab. “What I am about to show you will explain why. But first, I want you to know that I didn’t keep this from you because of a lack of trust. I know for a fact that I can trust you with my wallet, the keys to my house and the company of my youngest daughter. Trust was never the issue.”
You have a daughter? Boon asked.
“I was being figurative.”
Of course. Sorry.
“Then what was the reason for not showing us?” Dodger asked.
Feng ignored the question as he pushed open the door to the doc’s lab and passed through. In the low light of the windowless cab, Boon’s distinct outline came into view as he stepped inside. Dodger trailed behind.
Feng strode confidently through the laboratory, then paused outside of the door to his own cab, drew a deep breath and turned to face the pair of them. “Secondly, I want you both to know it also had nothing to do with smarts. What I am about to share with you will seem both logically and scientifically impossible. But we all know that our mutual host doesn’t know the meaning of that word.”
Boon furrowed his brow. “Is this going to be something really hard to understand? Because I’m not as clever as Mr. Dodger here, and certainly not as smart as you.”
“It will be hard to comprehend, but not in the way you expect. It is … let’s just say that you will have to take some of it on faith. As for the rest, you will just have to believe what I am telling you.”
“What’s the difference?” Dodger asked.
Feng grinned and nodded. “I’m sure you will figure it out. Come now. Let me show you.” He made a few motions over the prayers attached to his door—the same prayers that had kept the spirit from entering in the past—then opened the door to his cab and welcomed them into the kitchen car.
Only it wasn’t just a kitchen car. Sure, one half was a kitchen of sorts, complete with a potbellied stove, a sink, two long counters, lots of cabinets and an oversized icebox. Though where the cook got a regular supply of ice, Dodger couldn’t imagine. Perhaps from the same place he got his livermush? Pots and pans hung from a plethora of hooks, occasionally tapping against one another with the rhythm of the moving train.
The left half of the cab consisted of a comfortable living quarters decorated with a distinct Asian flair. A neatly made bunk rested against the wall, made up in silk cushions and furry blankets. At the foot and head of the bunk, there sat a matching pair of bamboo tables, each with its own wicker chair. All of the furniture and coverings boasted various oriental designs, rich with cultural and historical symbolism. About the place lay a number of things Dodger didn’t recognize, strange contraptions no doubt created by the doc to either entertain the cook or ease his lifestyle. Dodger made a mental note of each one, squirreling away the need to know what they were for a later date.
“Here she is,” Feng said, coming to a rest at the back of the cab.
At first glance, there appeared to be an ornate wooden door, but the longer Dodger looked at it, the more he realized there was a lot more to the thing than just a fancy style. For starters, on either side of the frame rested a set of matching contraptions—a pair of waist-high metal pedestals around which twisted a bundle of copper wire as thick as Dodger’s forearm. Each pedestal was topped by a silver orb the size of a man’s head. The gadgets were attached to the door via a series of branching wires, as if the pedestals had reached out and fused themselves to the door of their own accord. Another set of wires led to a metal box hanging from the wall beside the door. Scroll work adorned the door, the mechanisms and the wall around it. An ancient proverb was painted above the door, arching across in a flourish of script.
Guang yin si jian.
“Time flies like an arrow?” Dodger asked.
“Does it not?” Feng asked in return.
The odd thing about the whole affair, aside from the mechanisms and scroll work and delicately painted proverb, was that Dodger didn’t remember seeing a door to the kitchen from the caboose. So where did this door lead?
“That’s it?” Boon asked. “That’s the big deal?”
“What is it?” Dodger asked.
Feng turned about with a sly grin. “Something you can’t possibly imagine. But it is high time you learned.”
The emphasis on that one word—time—sparked something in Dodger’s brain. Neurons fired. Synapses connected. Words played upon words in his fertile mind. Out of time. No, Feng wasn’t just out of time, he was out of sequence. He knew things before they happened, other things that no man should rightly know, and now Dodger knew it had nothing to do with the man’s mystic nature. It had something to do with that door.
A door that led somewhere other than the next cab.
Dodger didn’t remember seeing a door to the kitchen from the caboose, because there wasn’t one. This door in front of him opened not to the caboose, but to some other place, and possibly some other time. Dodger’s eyes widened at the idea.
“Is that what I think it is?” Dodger asked, pointing to the door.
“What is it?” Boon asked, a little more than confused by Dodger’s sudden excitement.
“What do you think it is?” Feng asked.
“It’s a …” Dodger started, but his words trailed off when it came to saying them aloud.
There was no way it could be that. The idea was preposterous, not to mention impossible. Dodger had read a bit of the science of such things here and there, all conjecture, of course. Classic literature was rife with the idea, from fables to religious myths and beyond. Even the modern authors were beginning to show interest in the idea. But that was just it, an idea and nothing more. Wasn’t it?
“Say it,” Feng said. “You already know, Dodger. You are clever enough to work it, so you tell me what it is.”
“A time manipulating device?” Dodger asked.
“The doc calls it a Time-Ascension Portal.”
“Yeah, right,” Boon said. He started up with a laugh, clipping it short when he realized he was the only one amused. “Come on. You can’t be serious.”
“You know I despise seriousness, Wash,” Feng said. “But on this occasion, I shall make the exception. What you see before you is exactly as Mr. Dodger described. A time machine. Under normal working conditions, the TAP allows me to travel forward into time, and back here again.” Feng stroked the device with great care, as if caressing the mane of an excitable mare, or the thigh of an equally temperamental woman. “This, gentlemen, is one of the main reasons that mutt wants our train.”
Dodger stepped forward for a closer look, but Feng stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Stay back,” Feng said. “Notice I said it allows me to travel. The last thing you want to do is go through that door.”
“It only works for you?” Dodger asked.
“Why would Rex want something like that?” Boon asked. “What good would it do him?”
“I never said it only worked for me,” Feng said. “I just said you don’t want to use it.” He motioned to the door behind him. “Whoever travels by this machine is changed, greatly, in both body and mind. There is no way in the world I would allow you to use it. Not that you could right now.”
“What is wrong with it?” the doc asked from the opposite doorway.
Feng looked across the cab to his old companion, but said nothing.
“Let me have a look,” the doc said as he stormed across the cab, but Feng stopped even the creator of the device from approaching it.
“It isn’t broken,” Feng said.
“Then what is wrong with it? And don’t try to tell me there isn’t anything wrong, because I can see it in your eyes, Feng. You look like you’ve lost your best friend.”
Feng hung his head at the accusation and sighed deeply. “You’re almost correct. Maybe not my best friend, but definitely a good one.”
With some resignation, he opened the metal box on the wall, revealing a panel of switches, buttons and flashing lights. He pushed a few buttons, then flipped the largest switch. The gadgets on either side of the door leaped to life with a loud hum, the orbs arcing with blue sparks. Feng grabbed the handle of the door and slowly pulled it open.
Nothing lay beyond the door.
Not just a hole in the cab wall.
Not just another layer of copper and steel.
Dodger stared at the empty space beyond the doorframe, into a black void of nothingness. Looking at it made his head ache, like the distant pain of a tooth in need of pulling. At the same time, it was as soothing as a mother’s kiss. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the terrible welcoming sight. The emptiness called to him, the blackness whispered his name, beckoning him forward into the void. It was very much like the blackness that had almost claimed him so many times before, when he teetered on the precipice of death, swaying between this life and the next.
The spell broke when the Celestial closed the door again.
“What in the hell was that?” Boon shouted.
“Nothing,” Dodger said.
“I could see that. I mean what was that nothing doing there?”
“It shouldn’t be there at all,” the doc said in a gruffer voice than Dodger was used to hearing from the old man.
“I’m sorry, Heironymous,” Feng said.
“When did this begin?”
“Just after our battle with the Thunder Gang. When you returned the cylinder to me, I wanted to pop out for some coffee, but I found it like this.”
Dodger nodded. The elder’s words explained an awful lot. No wonder he seemed to have never-ending access to the most unusual of ingredients.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this right away?” the doc asked.
“Because you have enough to worry about as it is,” Feng said.
“I see. And you understand the implications of this?”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“Well, I wish you would explain it to me,” Boon said. “Because I am having a hard time understanding any of this.”
“I know this is a lot to take in,” the Celestial said, “so bear with me, and I will break it down for you. The door to the TAP normally leads to another place in time. I can control both the year and the location from this panel.” Feng touched the metal box again. “Due to some fault of the mechanics, I can only travel one hundred or more years from my present timeline, and never backward.”
“Fault?” the doc said with a huff as he crossed his arms. “You make it sound like I didn’t plan that. I will have you know that was specially designed to keep a man from running into his future self and causing a paradox.”
Feng leaned toward Dodger and added with a whisper, “Paradox schmaradox. I’ve had lunch with myself on numerous occasions.”
Dodger stifled a chuckle. “I take it this was the young Hieronymus’s attempt to help hide you so many years ago?”
“Unfortunately. Like I said, if he offers you his help, be prepared for the consequences.”
“What are you two whispering about over there?” the doc asked.
Louder, Feng said, “All of this amazing interaction requires a special key. A key I suspect was created to keep a leash on me.”
“Not true,” the doc said. “I have always made keys for my gadgets. It makes the owners feel like they have more control.”
“Either way, the doc removed the key to keep me from running off before our big showdown with Lei Gong.”
“Now, that is true. And I would do it again.”
“Much appreciated. But when he returned the key to me, I found that the door no longer led to the programmed time or place. Instead, it leads to that void. That … emptiness.” Feng paused here, taking on a pained look, as if the next bit were the hardest to put into words.
And Dodger reckoned he knew why.
But neither man got a chance to explain. Boon beat them both to the punch.
“If it leads to the future,” Boon said, tapping his chin, “then does that black void mean there is no future for it to lead to?”
Feng blinked in surprise at Boon’s deduction. “Yes. Yes it does. The void means that one hundred years from now, nothing exists. I checked it before our rooftop escapade, and things were fine. Something happened during our battle with the Thunder Gang that changed the way of things.”
“Something I did?” Dodger asked.
“There is no way to be sure.”
“But that is what you think.”
“Not at all. I’m of the opinion that it was all of our faults. By surviving our run-in with Lei Gong and his minions, we allowed you to meet up with Rex, and thus, he was able to deliver his demands. Otherwise, he may never have had the chance to get his hands on the train and all of this.”
“But the TAP is no good now,” Boon said. “It doesn’t go anywhere.”
“True,” the doc said. “Yet the science behind the TAP is still accessible, and this train is rife with other innovations that could do more harm than good if they fell into the wrong hands.”
“Or the wrong paws, in this case,” Feng said.
“Can we fix it?” Dodger asked.
“I’m not sure,” the doc said. “It depends on what caused it in the first place. The future is always fluid, always changing. Something as simple as sleeping ten minutes late can alter the course of a man’s life. There is absolutely no way to tell the exact cause, though I suspect the answer lies within that maniac’s lust for glory. If he gets the Sleipnir in his control, there will be no stopping him.”
Feng tapped the TAP. “And here is the proof that the man is crazier than a bedbug on opium.”
Dodger didn’t need any extra proof that Canus Rex was insane.
He reckoned the fact the dog existed was proof enough.