In which Dodger gets a new helping hand
At first nothing appeared to happen. Mr. Torque continued to stand still, eyes closed, fists clenched. The ticking grew faster, winding to a steady hum. Without warning, Torque released his fists and threw his arms back, thrusting his chest out and standing ram rod stiff. Blue light crackled around the machine, sparking off of the ends of Torque’s mustache, his eyebrows, his fingers and feet. Every inch of him crackled, much in the same manner of the spirit when touched. Then it was done. Torque relaxed, settling into a standing heap. Wisps of blue smoke drifted away from the bristles of his mustache, like blue ribbons unwinding into thin air.
“Mr. Torque?” the doc said.
An echoing voice issued from Torque’s mouthpiece, but it wasn’t Torque’s voice. “D-d-doc?”
Lelanea held her hands to her mouth with a gasp. “Washington?”
When Mr. Torque opened his eyes, gone were the copper discs that usually clicked and whirred as the mechanical man took in the world around him. Instead, the machine’s eyes were a steady, bright blue, almost blinding to look at, as if each orb were coated in a sheen of electric light. The same electric blue as the tube itself. Torque glanced to the left, then the right, then straight ahead at Lelanea.
“M-m-miss L-L-Lelanea-a-a?” the machine asked in that eerie echoing falsetto.
It faintly reminded Dodger of Washington Boon’s voice, only from very far off.
Lelanea held out a hand, touching Torque on the cheek. “Wash, is that really you?”
“I-I-I think so-o-o,” he said.
“I’ll be a monkey’sh uncle,” Ched said.
“Di-i-id it w-w-work?” Torque/Boon said.
“I dare say it did, Mr. Boon,” the doc said. “How do you feel?”
Torque/Boon brought a metal hand on his chest, tracing it down his frame in raps and taps. “H-h-h-ollow-ow-ow. Like I-I-I’m here, but n-n-n-not”
“I was afraid of that. The interface might need a bit of fine-tuning to halt the echoing. But you can control the framework, yes?”
Torque/Boon raised his hands over his shoulders and lowered them. He spun his head from left to right, blinked his eyes, raised each foot, in turn, then jumped a few times. “It w-w-would seem so-o-o-o.”
“Excellent!” the doc shouted, and clapped joyously.
“Yeah!” Sarah shouted and clapped as well.
“I have to say,” Dodger confessed, “I am impressed. You really think he can work this giant lumberjack of yours with the same ease?”
“I would expect nothing less. I can adjust the vocal controls so he doesn’t sound like he’s talking to us through a very long tube. Which, to be fair, he is.”
“It w-w-will be-e-e good to-o-o be-e-e of use again,” Torque/Boon said.
“Nonsense. You’ve been of use all the while. In your own way, of course. Only one more thing to test. Mr. Boon, what is the square root of twenty five thousand, six hundred and ninety eight?”
The blue eyes flickered a moment. “I-I-I don’t reckon I kn-ow-ow. S-s-sorry sir-ir-ir.”
“Not to worry, it is just as I expected. This means that while Boon is in the framework, he can only control the physical aspects of the machine. He doesn’t have access to the data source or other complexities.”
“You mean he can work it like Torque, just not think like Torque,” Dodger said.
“Show he pullsh the mashinesh shtringsh like a marionette,” Ched said.
“Yes,” the doc said. “Exactly. Very nicely put.”
“Jusht shwell.” Ched crossed his arms with a grunt. “I deshpishe marionettesh.”
“Well, luckily you’ll remain here with me, doing manual labor. We need to ready the Sleipnir for the bulkiness of the PAUL.”
Ched turned his head away. “I deshpishe manual labor worsh.”
“I know, which is why it will be a great cathartic release to have you assist me for once. Instead of just lazing about watching everyone else work.”
“I-I-I can help now to-o-o, s-s-sir,” Torque/Boon said.
“Shee?” Ched said. “You don’t need me after all.”
“Oh contraire my fine, odiferous friend,” the doc said. “Boon, I mean Mr. Torque, I mean, well the pair of them must accompany Lelanea and Mr. Dodger.”
“Why?” Lelanea said.
“A number of reasons.”
“M-m-miss Lelanea-a-a?” Torque/Boon said “Do-o-o you-u-u not want me-e-e along?”
She smiled softly, losing her hard questioning edge. “Of course I do.”
“Washington will not be going,” the doc said. “I mean he will, but not like this. He is to remain loaded in the cylinder until he is required to test on PAUL. No, I meant for you to take Mr. Torque as Mr. Torque.”
Lelanea returned to her previous doubt. “Why?”
“Aside from him being the safest transport for Washington’s delicate cylinder, I think the presence of Torque will encourage the town to trust you with PAUL. After all, you already possess one mechanical man, certainly they will see the wisdom of allowing you to purchase theirs.”
“Excuse me for saying so, sir,” Dodger said, “but that seems like a mighty thin premise.”
“Is it?” the doc said. “Well then, let’s just say I think it would do Torque some good to get out for a bit.” The doc began to pick at his lab coat, unwilling to look Dodger in the eye.
Dodger didn’t press the issue. “Whatever you say, sir.”
“Indeed.” The doc cleared his throat, a classic maneuver for the old man following an attempt to lie. “I have prepared a photovoltaic power source with a backup battery pack. The battery should last a few hours before it requires a full solar recharge. You must encourage Torque to remain in the sunshine as much as possible. Every minute he keeps to the shade, his time will slip away.”
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said.
“What about PAUL?” Sarah said.
“What about him?” the doc said.
“You asked Mr. Torque for permission to stick that thing into him, but you sound like you’re just going to invade poor PAUL.”
The doc gasped. “I would never dream of doing such a thing, young lady.”
“Well, what will happen to PAUL when Boon takes him over?”
“Oh I see what you’re getting at. You mean, what will happen to PAUL’s personality?”
“PAUL is only like Torque in the sense that they are both machines. But where Mr. Torque has a fully functioning personality, I could never get PAUL’s to kick in. I thought I wired them the same, but the big fellow never quite came into his own.”
“So he is just a machine, and nothing more?” Sarah said.
“Well, he is more than a machine, but he isn’t quite like Mr. Torque, if that makes sense?”
“I think so.”
“You ready to go, Miss?” Dodger said.
“Let me change first,” Lelanea said as she looked down at her masculine attire. “If I am to be married, then I suppose I should dress the part. Breeches aren’t becoming to a new wife.”
“For the record, I think you look just fine.”
Lelanea snorted as she left the room.
“I’ll go-o-o help her-r-r pi-i-ick out so-o-omething appro-ro-ropriate,” Boon said, following her in Torque’s shell.
“Can I go to Boulder Shadow, too?” Sarah said.
“No,” Dodger said. “You stay here with the doc. He’ll need extra hands now that Feng is down.”
Sarah stuck out her lower lip in a gentle pout.
“No need to be so sullen,” the doc said. “If you’re very helpful, I will show you how to work the Long Shot.”
“What’s a Long Shot?” Sarah said.
“About a thoushand to one,” Ched said, then chuckled to himself.
Sarah eyed the not-dead man, unsure how serious Ched really was.
“Mr. Dodger?” the doc said, rubbing his hands together. “May I talk to you a moment?”
“Certainly,” Dodger said.
The doc cleared his throat, glancing back and forth between the driver and Dodger.
“I would like to speak with Mr. Dodger,” the doc said, glaring at the driver.
Ched glared in return, but didn’t move.
“I would like to speak to Mr. Dodger in private,” the doc said.
The driver finally gave a whistling huff and stood. “Come on, Sharah. I’ll show you my coin collecshun.”
“But I don’t want to see your collection,” Sarah said. “I want to stay here and listen to-”
“Sarah,” Dodger said, giving her a glare equal to the doc’s.
She matched Ched’s annoyed huff. “May I see your collection, Mr. Ched?”
“Shure,” Ched said. “But we besht find a coin firsht.”
“Yesh. Can’t have a coin collecshion without a coin.”
The kid giggled as she followed Ched from the cab.
Once they were gone, the doc drew closer to Dodger, and lowered his voice. “If you haven’t guessed, there is a second reason I am so anxious to have PAUL back.”
“What’s that?” Dodger said.
“His power source. It’s … unconventional.”
“I’m going to guess unconventional is another word for dangerous?”
“Correct.” The doc gave a small nervous smile.
“How dangerous, exactly?”
“It is very similar to the train’s heart and the ICE machine.”
Dodger’s gut twisted at the idea. “So you put a freeze ray inside of a walking axe?”
“I know! What was I thinking? I was young and foolish. I wasn’t considering of the consequences in equipping a free range machine with such a thing.”
“You mean you never thought a maniac would try to gather all of your inventions and try to use them as weapons.”
“Correct again. And I know this is asking a lot of you, but please don’t let Lelanea know about this. She worries enough as it is. I don’t want this to weigh on her as well.”
“Whatever you say, sir. I’ll do my best to handle it discreetly.”
“I knew I could rely on you.” The doc sighed as he returned to his seat. “I feel so bad about all of this. Like that monster’s actions are all my fault.”
“No sir, don’t go down that road. It’s not your fault. You just don’t think like some folks do. And don’t sweat it. I’ll make sure to get the power source, if nothing else. We can’t have that mutt getting his hands on it.”
“Thankfully, I don’t think he knows about it. I didn’t tell him about PAUL when he was aboard, because I didn’t want Torque to know about it. And I haven’t heard from the town since the transaction. For all I know, they’ve broken him and he is sitting in some warehouse just gathering dust.”
“With any luck.”
The doc rubbed his hands again. “Now that is all sorted out, we can get on with it. Fortunately, PAUL was fitted with something very similar to Torque’s cylinder reader. He has a slot that allows the controller to change his pitch of grind for his wood chipper feature. It is located in the machine’s chest, about the same spot as Torque’s keypad. All you must do is slip the tube from Torque to PAUL and wait. If Boon is able to take control, the results should be immediate. If he is unable, then there will be no change and you can feel free to abandon the project.”
Dodger nodded his understanding. In truth, the whole thing sounded far more complicated than needed. If he had it his way, they would slip in under cover of darkness, poke Boon into this PAUL and walk out with the machine in tow. But part of working for another was letting them do things their way. Or at least let them think that you were going to do things their way.