In which Dodger explains the way of things
Dodger followed the angry native from the tent, watching as Jones stormed across the open space, but then tried to relax as he approached his boss man. The man’s posture did nothing to hide his anger, for the natives set to arguing right away. Dodger felt the presence of others joining him outside of the teepee.
“He sheemed awful upshet,” Ched said.
“The doc just gave him the bad news,” Dodger said.
“I heard. That’sh a shame.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing. We’re on a tight enough schedule as it is. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to stick around.”
“You know the doc offered to shtay ash long ash it took to help.”
“I would’ve been disappointed if he hadn’t.”
“It didn’t matter either way, becaushe they shtill turned him down.”
“I wonder why.”
The doc slipped out of the teepee. “I wondered if you could lend me a hand, Ched?”
“Shure,” Ched said.
“I think I can get the collars off with a simple snip or two, but I need help holding them straight.”
“I’ll do my besht.”
“I shaid I would do my besht.”
“I don’t want your best. I want you to do it right.”
“Sir?” Dodger asked.
“Yes?” the doc asked.
“I hate to bother you about this, but why are the buffalo so against help?”
The doc glanced to the natives, still arguing in the distance, then lowered his voice as he said, “I didn’t want Jones to know this, but the accelerated growth of their cells has left them in a constant state of excruciating pain. Pain is all they know. All they understand. To be quite frank, they are looking forward to dying.”
“I know the feeling,” Dodger said.
“Yes. It’s most unfortunate. Poor things. I can’t wait to get my hands on that maniac. I would like nothing more than to snap his little furry neck.”
Dodger doubted the doc would do such a thing, but the sentiment was agreeable.
“Looksh like the powwow ish over,” Ched said.
The group of leaders pushed Jones to one side and made their way to the main teepee.
“Get back in the tent, Doc,” Dodger said. “Let me handle them.”
“Nonsense,” the doc said. “I am every bit as much a part of this as you are.”
Dodger didn’t get much of a chance to argue about it before the chieftain and his entourage were within earshot. And bowshot. Even before they made it to the teepee, the chief was shouting in a gruff voice.
“He wantsh to know if the cowsh can really talk,” Ched said.
“Tell him yes, with some help,” the doc said. “And they aren’t cows, Chester. They are buffalo.”
Ched translated the information, to which the chief and his men all smiled and nodded. The leader said a few more excited words.
“He wantsh to hear them himshelf,” Ched said. The chief continued to talk as Ched explained, “He doeshn’t believe Jones’sh account. He doubtsh the Shishtersh are here for the White Crow. He alsho shaysh no offensh meant by that. I don’t know if he meansh by the name or the other thing.”
Dodger looked beyond the chieftain, to Jones, who remained at the edge of the distant crowd, all but sneering in return. The native was clearly upset by the news, just as his fellow tribesmen were bound to be once they heard it from the source. There was little that could be done about that, though. Might as well let the drama unfold naturally.
“If it makes the chief feel any better,” Dodger said, “I don’t think the Sisters are here for me either. But he and his men are welcome to hear it from the buffaloes’ mouths.”
“They should keep in mind,” the doc added, “that the devices have yet to be deactivated. There is still a danger that Rex is bluffing about everything, and the collars could explode without warning.”
Ched explained the situation.
The chief nodded, said a few words of thanks, then pushed past Dodger into the tent.
“You should go translate for them,” Dodger said, and gave Ched a little shove inside.
“I’ll join them, shall I?” the doc asked. He ducked into the tent without waiting for a response, passing Critchlow on his way out.
“That was just amazing,” Critchlow said, still glassy eyed with wonder. “I can’t believe those beautiful animals can actually speak.”
“Yeah,” Dodger said. “And no one else will believe you either.”
Critchlow lost the awe and stared at Dodger for almost a full five seconds in silence, before asking, “What are you trying to imply?”
“That you’re going to keep your trap shut about this, because if you think about it for more than a few seconds, the whole thing sounds pretty implausible. Not to mention silly.”
“I can’t just … I have a job … I have to … it’s just that …” Critchlow’s excuses faded to a murmur as he rubbed at the back of his neck and kept his eyes downcast, thinking about it for a moment. When he raised his face to Dodger again, he bore a sheepish grin. “You’re right, you know? I can’t tell anyone about it. Who would believe me? I suppose you and your crew will just deny it if asked.”
“You can count on that.”
“But why? Why hold back something so wonderful? Something like this could change the world.”
“I reckon the doc has his reasons, and I’ve learned not to question them. Whatever they are.”
“That kind of blind loyalty can be dangerous.”
“Nothing blind about it. If anything, I’ve seen too much. I know exactly what your bosses would do with a thing like that in there. The same thing applies to the ICE machine.”
All at once, Critchlow became the picture of innocence, as if he didn’t work for the same bastards Dodger spent the last half of a decade avoiding. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Dodger wasn’t fooled by the act. “I think you know exactly what I mean.”
“I am sure you’re mistaken.”
“Fine, you want me to spell it out? I’ll spell it out.” Dodger lowered his voice to a gravelly growl and moved in closer to Critchlow. “If the U.S. government gets their hands on the ICE machine, they will weaponize it. They will take a perfectly innocent thing and turn it into something dangerous and unstable. They will turn it against its own purpose, just like they do everyone else. Do you understand now? Or do I need to spell it with my fists too?”
Critchlow, to his credit, didn’t back away or even flinch the entire time Dodger snarled in the man’s face. He did, however, whisper a single word once Dodger was finished. “Everything.”
“You said everyone, but I think you meant everything.”
“I meant exactly what I said.”
Critchlow eyed Dodger a moment as those words sank into his brain until they reached just the right place. The man went a touch white as he swallowed hard. “You are he, aren’t you? You’re Agent Dodger.”
“I’m sure I don’t know who you mean,” Dodger said, delighting in echoing the man’s words.
“I’ve heard stories about you,” Critchlow whispered. “So many things. So many terrible, terrible things.” He began to tremble ever so slightly.
“You’re thinking wrong. Like I said, I’m the professor’s bodyguard. That’s all. And you’d best be damned pleased of that.” Dodger caught movement ahead and glanced to Jones just in time to see the native heading into the crowd, away from the teepee. “Come on.” Dodger jostled Critchlow in the direction of the fleeing native.
“Is it time to talk with Mr. Jones?”
Dodger had to give it to Critchlow: At least the bureaucrat had the wherewithal to keep up with what was going on. “I reckon it is.”
“Do you think he will listen to reason?”
“Not at all.”
“I was afraid you would say that.”
Dodger shoved the man along as they tried to catch up with Jones.