In the Blink of an Eye
In the Blink of an Eye
In which Dodger learns how much time is left
Dodger decided that, all things considered, it might be a good idea to bring the line in closer. Sure, it drew a bit of extra attention from the natives, but nothing Lelanea couldn’t handle. Aside from the fact that he was tired of pedaling back and forth, Dodger liked having the Sleipnir close, lest they require a speedy escape. Torque parked the line about a quarter-mile from the reservation, after which Dodger instructed the others to remain aboard.
Torque remained at the engine cab without the slightest grumble. The clockwork man was far too much of a coward to get wrapped up in the mounting trouble. Lelanea was glad to stay with the sleeping young lady, so long as Boon accompanied her. The spirit obviously craved a bit more action, but his heart lay with the lady, so he obeyed her word. Dodger found their developing romance cloying, to say the least. Feng, true to form, ignored Dodger’s commands and followed him and Critchlow to the reservation.
They found the crowd still at a distance from the tent—thank heavens for small favors—though the powers that be were starting to look a bit antsy.
“I see you brought the wonderful train closer this time,” Jones said.
“I want it where I can keep an eye on it,” Dodger said.
“Good thinking. The chief asked if he might have a chance to see it this time. Up close, I mean.”
“That’s up to the doc.”
“Of course.” Jones anxiously looked to the teepee. “I take it everything is still going well?”
“Come with us. You can ask the doc yourself.”
“I don’t think I should.”
“I’d rather you did. And don’t worry; it’s not as dangerous as all that.” In a lower voice, Dodger added, “And don’t translate that. Yet.”
Jones met Dodger’s gaze with a curious look. “I won’t.” He said a few things to his tribesmen, which seemed to quell their worry, then fell in behind Dodger.
As they approached the teepee, Dodger did his best to repress his ire at the sight of Ched lazing about in the shade of the big tent.
“I told you to keep an eye on the doc,” Dodger said.
“I wash,” Ched said.
“How can you do that from out here?”
Ched twisted his face into what Dodger guessed was an attempt at a grimace. “A man should only be exshpected to witnessh sho much.”
Dodger shook off the driver’s mysterious words, as well as his nauseating facial expression, and ducked into the tent. There he found a sight equally nauseating—the doc up to his arm in buffalo, quite literally. The doc, not a bit embarrassed by his compromising position, began to explain something about the need for a full gynecological exam. Dodger quickly excused himself from the scene and backed out of the teepee, trying to blink away the disturbing image. Feng chuckled at Dodger’s distress, until the Celestial stepped into the tent and backed out just as quickly.
“I don’t know what was worse,” Feng said with a grimace. “The smile on the doc, or the way the buffalo was giggling.”
“Both,” Dodger said.
“You think that’sh bad,” Ched said. “You shoulda been here a few minutesh ago.”
“What happened a few minutes ago?”
“The doc wash giggling too.”
“Any progress in there?” Jones asked.
“The doc will have to exshplain it,” Ched said. “I don’t undershtand half of what he shaysh normally. Get him shtarted on shomthing like thish, and I’m out.”
“You lose interest, eh?”
“Interesht nothing. I lose conshcioushnessh.”
“What’s all this then?” the doc asked as he poked his head out of the teepee. “A meeting of the minds?”
“We were just explaining to Jones how you can help,” Dodger said.
“Ah yes, that.” The doc glanced to the natives keeping a healthy distance from the teepee. “Mr. Jones. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind stepping inside.”
“Certainly,” Jones said, and followed the doc inside.
“Stay here, Ched,” Dodger said. “Keep an eye on the entrance. No one else gets near it. Understand?”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said with a heavy and bored sigh.
Dodger left Ched to it and motioned for Critchlow and Feng to follow him into the tent.
The doc returned to his place beside the buffalo, patting one of the Sisters on her healthy rump. “Ladies, thank you again for your participation in my examination.”
“It was our pleasure,” they said as one.
Critchlow gasped, covering his mouth just as his sound of surprise hit the air. Through his fingers, he whispered, “They really do speak.”
“With some assistance,” the doc explained.
“Professor, this is marvelous,” Jones said. “How is it possible?”
“Ladies, if you don’t mind allowing me the luxury of showing off my knowledge?”
“Of course,” Atropo said. “Be our guest.”
“We won’t interrupt,” Clotho said.
“Much,” Lachesis said.
The three bison giggled again.
“Thank you.” The doc withdrew a collapsible pointer from his jacket, extended it and proceeded to point out the various mechanisms of the device as he gave an abbreviated explanation of its makeup. “The SCWAK Box picks up on the thoughts of the animal, via a special contact mechanism here. The unit sends those impulses to the speaker here, which, as the name suggests, translates it into comprehensible speech patterns. The result is an output that mimics English well enough. It’s crude, but effective.”
“It’s incredible!” Critchlow shouted.
“Thank you, Mr. Critchlow,” the doc said. “I take great pride in my work.”
“Imagine how different things would be if we could talk to all of the animals.”
“Yes, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The SCWAK Box is a temporary substitute for proper communication with our fellow planet dwellers. It doesn’t work for all species, and can only be employed for a few weeks, at best. After that, there is a risk of the animal developing a tumor. Or worse.” Something in the doc’s voice said he had firsthand experience as to what that worse alternative was.
“Still, a few weeks. Imagine.” Critchlow’s eyes sparkled with admiration, as well as ideas.
Dodger immediately regretted bringing the man along.
“As wonderful as this is,” Jones said, “what of the collars?”
The doc touched the bulky collar on Atropos. “As you guessed, each of these metal drums contains dynamite.”
“Then they are rigged to explode?”
“Yes and no,” the buffaloes said.
The doc pointed to the collar. “The explosives, you see, are connected to the clasp and nothing else. If you try to remove the collar as is, the whole thing will explode. Otherwise, it lies as dormant as a sleeping demon after it has eaten half of a horse.”
Critchlow furrowed his brow, but said nothing.
“Can you get around it?” Feng asked.
“Of course I can,” the doc said. “It’s a simple trick. A snip here, a cut there, and the whole thing will be disarmed. Easy as that.”
“Thank the Lord,” Jones said.
“The explosives are still very explosive; that can’t be helped. But they will no longer detonate on removal of the collar. Which I highly recommend, of course. Now, as far as the buffalo themselves are concerned-”
“I thought the collar said they would explode in three sunsets,” Critchlow said over the doc.
“Excuse me?” the doctor asked, annoyed by the interruption.
“The collar. I thought it said they would explode tomorrow?”
“No. The collar indicates that they will expire in three sunsets. Not explode. The time frame given by the etching isn’t in reference to the dynamite.”
Critchlow wrinkled his nose and said, “That’s a bit anticlimactic.”
The doc wrinkled his nose in return. “Who are you again?”
“He’s the new agent for the reservation,” Dodger said.
“Ah. And you are also an expert on genetics, I take it?”
“What?” Critchlow asked. “No. Of course not.”
“No? Then what is it you do?”
“I am here to teach the Utes how to farm and such.”
“Farm? Well, that’s all right, then. When we talk about farming, I will ask for your input. Otherwise, I suggest you keep your mouth shut while the scientist is speaking.”
The ladies giggled as one.
Critchlow started at the laughter, then grumbled a few not very Christian things under his breath.
“As I was trying to explain before our resident farmer interrupted,” the doc continued, “the time frame isn’t in reference to the device. It’s a countdown of a different nature. I … well … I hesitate to say this, but …”
“Go ahead, Hieronymus,” Lachesis said over his dithering. “Tell them. It is best they are aware.”
The doc sighed. “I am afraid your buffaloes are of a limited existence, Mr. Jones.”
“What does that mean?” Jones asked.
“They were bred and raised by unnatural manipulation.”
Jones shook his head, not getting the doc’s meaning.
“Their genetics are in flux,” the doc said.
“The countdown represents the remainder of their life span,” the doc said.
“What does that mean?” Jones asked.
“They are going to die tomorrow night,” Dodger said. “With or without the help of the explosives.”
“You’re joking,” Jones said.
“I would never joke about such things, young man,” the doc said.
“Is there nothing you can do?” Jones asked.
The doc furrowed his brow, looking quite upset. “I’m afraid not.”
“I thought you could stabilize them?” Dodger asked.
“I thought so too, but after examining them, I found it isn’t quite that simple. They aren’t of the same instability as the Pack, Dodger. Their genetics aren’t just blended, they are hyper-accelerated.”
“I don’t,” Critchlow said.
“They are growing at a fantastic rate,” the doc said. “By my guess, they are aging an hour every five seconds. This conversation alone has seen their bodies age by two weeks. The average bison only lives fifteen years or so.”
Dodger did the math in his head. “They’ll only have a week to live?”
“They had a week,” the doc reminded Dodger. “Rex was gracious enough to let us know roughly how far along they were when they arrived. And by his calculations, they will die of old age at sunset tomorrow. Calculations with which, after my own examinations of the trio, I am forced to concur. Now, I might be able to produce a serum that will slow the process, allowing them to live a few extra days, maybe even a week or more. In that time I might be able to concoct a solution that will bring their aging to a normal rate, but …” The doc paused as he glanced to the buffalo for guidance.
“But?” Jones asked.
“But we asked him not to,” Atropos said.
Jones’s face fell into a look of naked desperation. “Why not?”
“Because we are as we were,” Clotho said.
“We were as we will be,” Lachesis said.
“We shall be as we are, always,” Atropos said.
“I think that means they want leave things as they are,” the doc said.
“You can’t do this to us,” Jones said. “We need you. You came to us at our most desperate time, and now you’re just going to abandon us? My people need direction. We need your guidance.”
“You do not need us,” Lachesis said.
“You are strong enough on your own,” Clotho said.
“And we were never here for you, or your people,” Atropos said.
“Then what are you here for?” Jones asked.
The buffalo looked, as one, to Dodger.
Jones clenched his fists as he said, “I understand. Excuse me; I need to report this most sorrowful news to Chief Atchee. Thank you for your time, Professor. Once you have removed the collars, we will make payment arrangements for your services.”
“No payment is required,” the doc said. “It’s my pleasure to help.”
“We would like that envelope,” Dodger said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Yes. The envelope. I will see if I can obtain it for you.” Jones whipped about on his heel and stormed from the tent.