Chapter ThreeSmall Talk
In which Dodger learns what animals think
“Where is it?” the doc grumbled. The man tossed aside gear after gadget, book after scroll, rifling through a seemingly bottomless chest. “It boggles the mind that I created that metal monstrosity to keep up with things like this, but the moment I need one, he claims I never logged them.”
“It isn’t my fault you are incapable of proper record keeping,” Torque said.
“And it isn’t my fault you’re such a copper twit!” The doc rolled his eyes about and hummed as he reconsidered his words. “Actually, I think it might be. Nonetheless, you should be lending a hand.”
“I will have you know, I was instructed by Mr. Dodger to return to the engine room.”
“Then why are you standing around here?”
“Because he won’t follow my orders either,” Dodger said.
The doc took a much-too-wide kick at the metal man. “Get your rusted rump to the engine room before I dismantle it for a cook pot.”
Mr. Torque fled the room, but not before giving the doc the old two-finger salute complete with an unusual motion—a leathery tongue slithered from Torque’s metal lips and flapped against his copper mouth while he blew as hard as he could.
It took Dodger a moment to realize that the clockwork man was attempting a raspberry.
The doc narrowed his eyes at the sight of the metal man fleeing the room. “That was odd.”
“Seemed in line with his usual attitude,” Boon said.
“True, but I don’t remember equipping him with a tongue.” The doc shrugged it off and returned to his search.
“What are you looking for?” Lelanea asked. “Perhaps we can help.”
“Didn’t you hear that young man?” the doc asked. “Squawk! Squawk!” He squawked a few more times, while pointing to either side of his head.
Dodger thought that perhaps the doc had blown a gasket in his fumbling search. Granted, the doc had been known to make odd noises when he got upset, but this was new. It was a good thing they’d sent Jones on back to the reservation with Ched, lest the poor native witness the doc suffering one of his miniature mental breakdowns. Dodger glanced to Lelanea, expecting a typical sigh or tutting click of the tongue, but instead, she nodded in understanding.
“Ah, of course,” Lelanea said. “Why didn’t you just say so? I know right where they are. Step aside. You’re just making a mess.”
“I can always rely on you,” the doc said, obeying her words and stepping back from his mountain of madness.
“The squawk boxes are in your other foot locker.” Lelanea pointed to the chest the doc had nearly emptied. “This is for A through M.” She shifted her finger to the chest across the room. “The other is for N through Z. Remember?”
“Of course. How could I forget?”
“That’s what you have me for. To remember things.”
“You always remember things.”
“I remember the squawk box,” Boon said.
“I hate to ask, but what in the world is a squawk box?” Dodger asked.
The doc grunted as he took his seat at his work bench. “The Sociable Communications with Animal Kind Box. It was an idea way ahead of its time. As in there was never a good time to use it.”
“I thought it was kind of fun,” Boon said.
“Fun?” the doc asked. “It was a disaster. A total and complete disaster.”
As she put away the last of her uncle’s mess, Lelanea explained, “He invented the SCWAK Box for a shepherd who thought it would be easier to shear his sheep if he could talk directly to them.”
“Did it work?” Dodger asked.
“Of course it worked!” the doc snapped. He crossed his arms over the table and leaned down to rest his chin. “Much like everything I touch, it worked too well.”
Dodger looked to Lelanea for another explanation. She pressed her lips together, hard, then turned her search to the second chest. Dodger could tell she was trying not to laugh.
“It proved to be too much for the shepherd,” the doc said. “The man couldn’t get any rest for the chatter of his talkative sheep.”
“But instead of baa-baa this and baa-baa that,” Boon said, “it was all blah-blah this and blah-blah that. Day and night.”
“Serves him right, if you ask me,” the doc said.
“Turns out, sheep are notorious gossips,” Boon said.
“See what I mean?” the doc whined. “Sheep are gossips, and pigs are intellectuals, and turtles like to play chess, and housecats are just tiny dictators with delusions of grandeur, and—surprisingly enough—emus think in a German accent, but all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I forget what I was saying now.”
“You were telling me about the Boxes,” Dodger said. “What happened to the shepherd?”
“One night, it proved to be too much for the poor man. He ended up taking out his aggressions with an axe in the manner he saw most appropriate.”
“On the sheep?” Dodger asked.
“Oh no. Thank goodness he didn’t go that far. He did, however, chop every last Box into tiny bits. I gave up on the project after that. No one else seemed interested after they heard what the sheep had to say. It was my understanding they didn’t limit their gossip to just the other barnyard animals, if you get my drift.”
“Drift gotten. The shepherd didn’t return the Boxes to you when he was done?”
“No. He destroyed them and dumped the results in a creek near his home. He didn’t even ask for a refund, thank Mercury.” The doc sat back again with a childish huff. “He did, however, write me to let me know how awful the things were.”
Boon added, “And how much happier he was not knowing exactly what kind of kinky nonsense his wife was getting up to on her own.”
Lelanea finished with, “And exactly where downriver we could find the things if we wanted to retrieve them.”
It was Dodger’s turn to repress a grin. Any way you related the story, it was a touch amusing. “Did you?”
“Did I what?” the doc asked.
“Of course not. Accursed things.”
“Fair enough. But you obviously have extras?”
“Yes. If Lelanea can find them.”
“I’m certain I can,” she said from halfway inside the chest.
“All right,” Dodger said. “Did you have a working model of the SCWAK Box or sketches of the thing out here in the open at any time when Rex was aboard?”
The doc pondered this. “No. I don’t think so. The extra few I had, I locked away.”
“Found one!” Lelanea said. She stood straight and held out a black box the size of her palm.
“That it?” Dodger asked. “Doesn’t look like much.”
“It never does,” Boon said.
“What does it do?”
“The box rests against the animal’s brain,” the doc said, “outside of the skull, obviously. Harmless low-voltage electrical impulses are sent through the skull, into the brain, where they stimulate the animal’s cognitive brain cells, forcing them into an accelerated state.”
“You mean it forces the animal to think?” Dodger asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“I know a number of humans who need one of those.”
“Yes, well, that is another matter. In this case, the impulses allow the animal to interpret our language, and their responses are pulsed back to the box. The box then translates those pulses to the nearest equivalent word in the language the unit is programmed for, and projects them to us via this small speaking port. These are programmed to English. I tried making one that translated to French, until I remembered I couldn’t speak French very well.”
Dodger was aghast at the idea of it. “Once again, sir, you have amazed me.”
“Now, now. It isn’t all good, I’m afraid. There are a few downsides.”
“There is a downside to everything.”
“True. And as long as it is carefully applied in small, controlled doses, it’s as safe as houses. I’ve never been one to believe that animals are just deaf and dumb soldiers here to serve our every need. All this does is free them to speak their minds.”
“And Rex, as Jo-Jo, never heard about the Boxes? Never saw them?”
“I am fairly sure he didn’t.”
“You never thought of fitting him with one?”
“Are you kidding? Not after the sheep incident. I learned a lesson from the shepherd. Sometimes animals are privy to information you don’t wish to share with others. Though, all things considered, it doesn’t seem to matter now, does it?”
“No, sir. How long ago did all of this happen?”
“Sir, how long?”
“Two years ago. Maybe longer. I’d have to look at my accounting books to be sure. Why are you so interested in such things?”
“Yeah, Dodger?” Boon asked. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking there is something bigger going on here,” Dodger said. He recited the doc’s timeline aloud, counting the various dates off on his fingers to illustrate his point. “You sent the POW machine to the states in ’64. You moved here around the end of ’66. You were refused transport by the train barons and thus built the Sleipnir in the summer of ’68. During that time, you sold inventions to eager farmers and small towns to build a clientele. By ’69, you were traveling full time in the Sleipnir, making deliveries like the SCWAK Box via the Rhino with Boon as your security man. Correct?”
“Yes, that sounds about right,” the doc said.
“And here Rex is, calling you out by your work. Again.”
“Yes, I’m afraid he is. I imagine he has a duplicate of the SCWAK Box, much like everything else he has stolen from me, and has used it to speak with the buffalo he created. I will admit I am hesitant to find out what he has told them.”
“But you didn’t show him the Box? You’re sure about that?”
“Relatively sure. Why? What has you so worked up?”
“I suspect Rex has been playing a much longer game than we gave him credit for. I don’t think he gathered all of his info on you while aboard as a dog. I think he knew enough about you before then. I think that maniac has been stalking you since you arrived on U.S. soil. Maybe longer.”
Lelanea’s hand fluttered over her throat in horror. “That’s awful. What a terrible notion.”
“You think Rex really has been after the doc for that long?” Boon asked.
“I do,” Dodger said. “Long enough to set you up for disaster after disaster. Long enough to plan Boon’s apparent death and steal his corpse. Long enough to plan a few months ahead with this whole bison thing.”
“But why me?” the doc asked. “I’d never even met the man before now. What did I ever do to him?”
“It wasn’t what you did,” Dodger said. “It was what you made.”
“The POW machine?”
“Yes, sir. While I will admit Rex is a genius in his own right, he must’ve recognized a superior mind when he saw one. He understood the potential of your work enough to tweak it to his own devices, but I’m willing to bet he never could have come up with it from scratch. He can copy and alter your designs, but he lacks the ingenuity to think of them on his own.”
“That would explain why he wants you alive,” Boon said.
“As if I would share my knowledge with that monster,” the doc said. “He would have to torture me first.”
Dodger raised his eyebrows.
“I think that is the idea, sir,” Boon said.
“Ah,” the doc said. “I see. He would do just that, wouldn’t he? Oh, dear. This isn’t good. And to think, I built the Sleipnir because I just wanted a place to call home. But I may have doomed the entire world in the process.”
Dodger cocked his head at his boss man. “How’s that?”
Lelanea glanced to the doc, who shot her just as worried a look.
“Yeah,” Boon said. “How is that?”
“Should we?” Lelanea asked.
“I think we must,” the doc said.