In which Dodger finds trouble
“Are we just going to pedal around aimlessly?” Mr. Torque said. “Or are you going to tell us why we are headed away from the line instead of home?”
“I will,” Dodger said. “But first, what did you two find out?”
“I don’t know about Torque,” Lelanea said, “but I found out how the town got its new name.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“The place used to be called Boulder Shadow until three years ago, when they changed it to Jubilee, in honor of the Mayor’s granddaughter.”
“I suppose rank has its privileges.”
“Perhaps, but in this case it was a posthumous honor.”
Dodger winced. “What happened to the poor thing?”
“Not surprisingly enough, the young Jubilee died during a cave-in.”
“Ah, the plot thickens.”
“It’s not the only thing thick in here,” Torque said.
“From the way you’re driving,” Lelanea said, “I take it you know where these supposed caves are.”
Dodger shared the innkeeper’s tale, including the strange warning at the end.
“Then you think PAUL is still in the mines?” Lelanea said.
“I do,” Dodger said. “The machine may or may not be functional, but I’d like to check it out anyways.”
“I agree. Perhaps we can salvage the frame.”
Lelanea eyed him cautiously. “You’re not interested in the machine at all, are you?”
“Of course I am.”
“No you’re not. You’re after the mystery, aren’t you?”
Dodger fell quiet as he gripped the wheel. He didn’t trust his tongue to answer, because he wasn’t sure what he would say.
“Dodger,” Lelanea said, “you know we don’t have time for this. If you think PAUL is still there and there is the slightest chance that it is functional, then I am all for this. But if this is just about chasing a mystery, then we should turn around and go back now.”
“It’s not just about a mystery,” Dodger said. “That innkeeper wanted us to head up here for a reason. Let’s just find out what’s here. If it’s nothing, we go back empty handed and get on with it. If we find PAUL, then we see what we can salvage. That’s all.”
Lelanea nodded, but said nothing else on the matter.
“If you two are done yapping,” Torque said, “then perhaps you would be interested in what I found out.”
Lelanea and Dodger looked to one another, then back to the metal man.
“When did you have time to find out anything?” Lelanea said.
“While you two were talking,” Torque said, “I was watching, listening, and learning.”
Dodger repressed a chuckle. “And what did you learn?”
“That the general store carries a unique selection of novels for such a small town.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. Unique bestsellers, from what I understand. Each volume an excellent example of fine literature.”
“Really?” Lelanea said, nudging Dodger. “These unique novels wouldn’t be written by someone we know, would they?” She began giggling.
Dodger couldn’t help but join her.
Torque huffed and crossed his arms, turning his head to the side. “Philistines.”
“I’m sorry, Torque,” Dodger said between chuckles. “But what do a few books have to do with this whole affair?”
“I was only saying that someone in this town has excellent taste.”
“Duly noted,” Lelanea said. She rose in her seat a bit and pointed ahead. “Look. There’s an opening ahead.”
Dodger had already spotted the mouth of the cave, thanks to a huge ‘Do Not Enter’ sign posted to the left of the opening. “Must be our stop.”
They pulled the Rhino as close as they could get, considering the loose rocks and such, parking her a few hundred feet away. Dodger and Lelanea climbed out of the vehicle and approached the mouth of the cave.
“Do not enter,” Lelanea said as they passed the sign. “Ominous enough, I suppose.”
“Yeah.” Dodger stared into the stretching darkness of the opening. “I’d give my left arm for a Sunbox right now. I wish I had thought to pack one.”
“No need.” Lelanea snapped her fingers. “Come on, Torque. Let’s go.”
Torque gasped with a metal squeak. “I am not going down there.”
“You certainly are.”
“Do we want him along?” Dodger said.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Lelanea said. “Torque has a built in light source.”
“And I won’t use my power just to light your worthless way,” Torque said. “My onboard torch consumes twice as much power as anything that maniac has fitted me with.”
This left Dodger to wonder what else the mechanical man had hiding in his frame.
“Either you go down there willingly, or I will make you,” Lelanea said.
“Oh no you don’t. You will not coerce me into this one. Besides, if I spend my power lighting your path, there won’t be enough for me to guide you out.”
“What about Boon?” Dodger said.
“What about him?” Torque said.
“Can’t he work your light without spending your power?”
Torque’s eyes widened as he snorted loudly. “I will have you know, I am not a puppet to be driven by that spectral menace whenever the mood strikes you horrible people.”
“I was just suggesting-”
“Suggesting? Suggesting!” Torque took a few menacing steps forward, poking his metal finger into Dodger’s chest. “I suggest you take your suggestion, write it down on a piece of parchment, fold that parchment down and place it into an envelope, address that envelope to your nether regions and then shove the whole works up your duff! I would rather be melted down into a shovel used to clean out a filthy stable than willingly allow you to switch me on and off like some kind of flashing source of light.”
“You don’t have to allow us,” Lelanea said. A sudden worry took her as she said, “Goodnight, Mr. Torque.”
At Lelanea’s last words, Torque went blessedly quiet and suspiciously slack. His reaction was much in the manner of the Swordfish command.
“What was that?” Dodger said.
“Unfortunate,” Lelanea said. “Uncle fitted Torque with a verbal command that allows the SPOOK to override the main input source.”
“You mean Boon can take over Torque with just a few words?”
“Yes. And I feel horrible about using it, but once again we don’t have time to argue with him.” Lelanea turned about to stare into the mouth of the cave, the worry on her deepening. “We need to get out of here. I sense danger in this place.”
Dodger eyed the huge warning sign and barred opening. “Yeah, no kidding. How long does it take for Boon-”
Just as Dodger spoke, Torque went stiff from crown to soles, crackling all along his metal frame with that eerie blue light that signaled Boon’s emergence. After a few seconds of this, the metal man raised his head and blinked his blue eyes at the pair.
“What’s going on?” Boon asked, thankfully without the echo. “Where are we?”
Lelanea explained the situation as quickly as she could, while Dodger began the task of breaking apart the barrier. Thanks to years of rot and woodworms, and much to Dodger’s joy, the timbers came down with a few simple yanks. As he cleared away the last of the blockade, a cold, stale gust of air slipped from the mouth of the cave, like a great beast exhaling a pent up breath in Dodger’s face.
“I don’t think anyone has been here for a long time,” Dodger said, waving away the stagnant air.
“That correlates with the tale,” Lelanea said. “Three years certainly is a long time.”
“We are confident this PAUL is down there?” Boon said.
“I sure hope so,” Dodger said. “Can you give us some light?”
The metal man’s eyes flickered to a brighter intensity, as Boon activated Torque’s onboard lights. The mouth of the cave proved empty, save the expected rubble. All of the mining equipment, or anything for that matter, had long since been removed.
“Let’s get this over with,” Dodger said. “The sooner we get down there, the sooner we can get out of here.”
“Wait,” Lelanea said. She turned about and looked to the surrounding hills and cliffs. “Do you hear that?”
“Horses. I hear horses. Quite a number of them.” Lelanea hurried back to the Rhino. “We need to get out of here.”
“No,” Dodger said, following her. “We should stick around and find out what’s what. It’s time we got some real answers.”
“These people aren’t going to tell us anything.”
“Then let’s just get on down there and find out for ourselves.” Dodger finally caught up with her, grabbing Lelanea by the arm and holding her still. “Something strange is going on in this town, and I aim to find out what it is.”
“This isn’t our mystery, Dodger. Think about it for just a fraction of a second. If the innkeeper sent us here in secret, then whoever that is on their way up here won’t be pleased to see us mucking about in their mines.” Lelanea tried to pull away from him. “We should go.”
Dodger yanked her back to him. “We should stay.”
“I don’t think we have much choice,” Boon said.
Dodger glanced back to find Gerald Benton, nervous innkeeper and quiet rebel, holding a revolver to Torque’s metal head.
“I am so sorry about this,” Benton said, and pulled the trigger.
“No!” Lelanea cried over the blast of the revolver.
Torque’s head jerked to the left, then back to the right, in a rebound that would have snapped a real man’s neck. The machine went slack, completely this time, falling to the ground at the innkeeper’s feet with the sharp thunk of metal against stone. Some dark, thick fluid seeped from the fist sized hole in the metal man’s head, spreading in a wide arc across the gravel and dirt. The innkeeper dropped the gun into the puddle, then raised his shaking hands to his mouth. A look of sorrow consumed him as he backed away from the bleeding machine. Somewhere behind them, the sound of approaching horses grew louder, announcing the arrival of the other townsfolk no doubt. Just under this noise, a growl rose from Lelanea’s throat. Dodger’s stomach twisted at the surge of power that flowed through her bicep. Her eyes flashed with untold rage, as well as that animalistic nature that threatened to spill out and tear the innkeeper apart, limb from limb.
“Lelanea!” Dodger shouted.
The woman snapped her attention to him, her lips curled in a hateful snarl.
“Don’t,” Dodger said, squeezing her arm for emphasis. “Please.”
Lelanea stared at him for a frozen second, the anger and hate and grief in her eyes accusing him just as much as Benton for what had just occurred. Dodger knew there would be plenty of time for such things later, as well as plenty of blame to heap. But he also knew that if the woman turned into the wolf, right then, right there, in front of the innkeeper and God only knew who else was on the way, than she wouldn’t get a chance to place blame on anyone else with so much blood on her own paws. As the undeniable sound of hooves on gravel reached them, Lelanea yanked her arm out of Dodger’s grip and ran to the dark pool of oil that encircled the fallen Torque. She fell to her knees with a soft cry of sorrow. Lifting the metal man’s head, she pulled him closer and cradled him on her lap.
“Torque?” she whispered. “Torque? Please, don’t be gone. I need you. Please don’t leave me.”
Dodger wondered if her words were intended for the metal man, or the spirit that inhabited the machine. For both were equally silent; the clockwork ticking gone, the electric blue light faded. As he witnessed Lelanea break down into a torrent of tears, Dodger would’ve given anything to hear that insulting metallic voice just one more time.
In which Dodger ends up under watch