In which Dodger arrives at the wrong place at the right time
The doc parked the line about a good ten miles from the town of Boulder Shadow, and sent the pair of newlyweds off with Torque into the yonder to wait and see. Dodger did most of the peddling, only because he had so much frustration to work off. If nothing else, the day was pitch perfect for taking the Rhino out for a spin. Bright and sunny, with just the softest hint of a breeze in the air, if he and the Misses hadn’t been so sore at one another the ride may have been considered romantic. Yet anything but romance blossomed between Dodger and Lelanea on that open road.
“Pray tell,” Lelanea said after about two miles of total silence, “what makes me unworthy of your vows?”
“I never said you were unworthy of my vows,” Dodger said. “I just think this whole masquerade is unnecessarily complicated. That’s all.”
“Complicated?” Lelanea thought on this for a moment. “I suppose you have a point. Uncle has outdone himself this time.”
“He outdoes himself constantly,” Torque said. “But when one’s standards are so low, it can’t be helped.”
Dodger ignored the mechanical commentary. “You have to admit that it makes a lot more sense to sneak in under the cover of darkness, try and load Boon into this so called machine and if it works we can just leave the money behind.”
“So, steal it?” Lelanea said. “That’s your alternative?”
“Did you miss the part where I said we pay them for it? Or did I just think that and not say it?”
“Pay without asking?”
“I don’t know what a highly trained government assassin refers to that act as, but we common folks call it stealing.”
Dodger gripped the wheel of the rhino, twisting it hard between his fists. “All right, it’s stealing. I’m sure the town would forgive us after they learned why we had to take their precious lumberjack.”
“That isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Torque said. “She doesn’t want to do what you want to do simply because you want to do it. Classic lover’s tiff.”
Dodger leaned toward Lelanea and lowered his voice as he said, “Are you sure we can’t turn Boon back on?”
“I would love to,” she said. “But you heard Uncle. We can’t rob the bucket of bolts of his precious personality. No matter how annoying it is.”
“This bucket of bolts can hear everything you’re saying,” Torque said. “And for the record, I am pleased to be invited along for once. It’s nice to be able to get away from that awful train and stretch my legs. I just hope this supposed battery does its duty. Last time it was a disaster.”
“That’s because last time the battery was a touch unreliable.”
“Unreliable?” Torque snorted. “Try completely useless! I powered down in less than an hour. I missed the whole thing.”
“What thing?” Dodger asked.
“A few months back, we took a trip to the seaside,” Lelanea said. “But Torque’s portable battery was a new concept then, and failed to perform properly. He missed the whole trip.”
“That gray headed nitwit keeps promising me we shall return,” Torque said, “but I think he only says that to tease me. We are never going back.”
“If we don’t stop Rex,” Dodger said, “there won’t be a seaside to return to.”
Torque gave a whistling snort. “Then I shall retreat to the seaside in my mind. Wake me when we arrive.” Torque closed his brass eyelids and went blessedly silent.
Thank goodness for that, Dodger said under his mind.
No response came from Lelanea.
Why didn’t you answer me back there? Dodger said. Or now?
Lelanea looked out across the rolling countryside, failing to answer yet again.
Lelanea? Dodger said. Can you not hear me?
“I wonder if we are close,” she said.
“Lelanea?” Dodger said aloud.
She turned to him. “Yes?”
Can you not hear me? he said in underspeak.
“What is it?” she said.
“You can’t hear me,” Dodger said.
“I heard you perfectly fine.”
“Then what did I say?”
“You said my name, and I said what and … oh, you meant in underspeak, didn’t you?”
“You were addressing me in underspeak on the train as well?”
“I tried. Something must’ve changed, because I think I may have lost the knack.”
Lelanea didn’t seem the least bit surprised; just a touch worried. “That is a shame, but I suppose it’s understandable, all things considered.”
Dodger may not have been able to pick up underspeak, but he knew undertones when he heard them. “What’s to be considered?”
She looked away again. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m sorry you’ve lost the talent for underspeak. It would’ve been quite useful on this trip.”
“I was thinking that, too. I suppose I should still be able to talk to Boon. I could do that before.”
“There’s something.” Lelanea fell quiet after that.
Dodger also went silent as he mulled over her casual dismissal of such an extraordinary thing.
The company may have been sour but the countryside was gorgeous. Dodger pedaled the Rhino over green hills, through quiet meadows and past thick forests, following the coordinates to what doc claimed was a dry patch in the western dirt filled with rough and heavy handed men. Yet, the passage wasn’t as overgrown as Dodger would’ve expected for a town of loners. In fact, before long a road appeared, hewn from the natural countryside. Dodger followed on, up and down the rolling countryside, until the Rhino crested the last small hill, revealing a big surprise.
“This can’t be right,” Lelanea said as she leaned over the Rhino’s windshield to peer down at the oddity below. “That can’t be the town we are looking for. You must’ve taken a wrong turn.”
“The doc said follow the compass northwest,” Dodger said. “This is northwest.”
“Then you must’ve made a mistake.”
“I didn’t make a mistake. I followed his instructions.”
Lelanea lowered herself into her seat and sneered at Dodger. “You made a wrong turn.”
“There were no turns to make,” Dodger said behind gritted teeth.
“I hate to break up this love affair,” Torque said, “but the man child is correct. According to my LISP, this should be the exact spot of Boulder Shadow.”
Dodger wasn’t sure he heard Torque quite right. “Did you say lisp?”
“Of course I did. My Locality Internal Sensory Positioner.”
“It’s like a compass,” Lelanea said. “Only for the places Uncle has visited. He logs each place he has visited into Torque’s internal memory slots. But none of that matters because this can’t be Boulder Shadow.”
“And I say it is,” Torque said. “And you must confess, I am always correct.”
“Torque,” Lelanea said. “Look down there and tell me that is the town Uncle described.”
In equal silence, the three of them stared down into the valley below. At the exact spot where the doc claimed rested the small village of Boulder Shadow instead sat a rather large and busy town.
The place was built in the traditional main street style, with a wide road running through the middle of town. Buildings with fake high fronts crowded the street on either side, while smaller paths shot off at various points, leading to standalone businesses that took up more space than others. The boardwalks were alive with folks, shopping and talking, hustling and bustling, living their lives without an iota of an idea that it was all about to come to an end any day thanks to the vicious mutt that was Canus Rex.
Dodger scratched his stubbly chin. “You know, maybe we are in the right place. Maybe that is Boulder Shadow.”
“I suppose so,” Lelanea said. “It has been a number of years. Perhaps things have changed.”
“Shall we press on?” Torque said.
Dodger set the Rhino into gear again and began pedaling once more, following the path down the ridge toward the busy town. About a half mile from the town, Dodger whipped the Rhino behind an outcropping of rock and brought her to a halt. He set the brake and locked the whole works in place, pocketing the key once he was done. Someone might stumble upon the Rhino, but there was no way in heaven or hell they’d be able to move it, thanks to the doc’s intricate locking mechanism.
Dodger and Lelanea gathered their things as they prepared to disembark.
“What on earth are you doing?” Torque asked.
“We’re parking the Rhino here,” Dodger said, “and walking the rest of the way.”
Lelanea huffed at the question. “Because we don’t want to draw any more attention to ourselves than needed. It’s going to be hard enough to keep a low profile with you tagging along.”
“Well that won’t be a problem,” Torque said, “because I am not coming with you if I am expected to walk all that way.” He crossed his arms and settled into his seat once more.
“Have fun staying here then,” Dodger said.
“And you should have fun not doing what you came to do. That blathering ape you call a master said you couldn’t do this without me, remember?”
“Come on, husband,” Lelanea said. “Let’s get going. It’s a long enough walk without this hunk of metal to worry with.”
“Agreed, wife,” Dodger said. That last word rolled off of his tongue with a bitter edge he couldn’t mask. Dodger had spent half of his life pretending to be something he wasn’t, and the other half trying to make up for those mistakes. Yet the task ahead—simply posing as Lelanea’s husband—filled him with the kind of dread he once reserved for the most difficult of missions.
The pair of them headed toward the path once more, leaving Torque to stew.
“How long should we give him?” Lelanea said.
“I’d say another sixty seconds,” Dodger said.
“If that long-”
Before Dodger could finish his words, there came the undeniable sound of the mechanical man clambering out of the Rhino.
“Wait a moment,” Torque shouted. “I say, wait for me.”
Dodger and Lelanea stopped and gave Torque a moment to catch up.
“There we are,” Torque said as he joined the pair on the path. “You act as though I actually planned on staying behind. I was only joking, of course.”
“Save your jokes for later,” Lelanea said, “when we aren’t on a tight schedule.”
“Come now, where is your sense of humor?” Torque said.
“I guess I forgot to pack it. Just like I forgot to bring reliable help and marry a man who is useful. But I guess that is the lot of my life as a woman. Isn’t it? Just do as I am told?” Lelanea tossed her bag over her shoulder once more. “Come on, you two. Let’s get this over with.”
Dodger and Torque stood back as Lelanea walked away.
“This is going to be a long day,” Dodger said.
“Every day with you buffoons is a long day,” Torque said, and followed after the angry woman.
Dodger fell in line without another word.
The walk was blessedly quiet for the most part. Lelanea kept to herself and Torque was so focused on not tripping on the ‘hazardous countryside’, as he put it, that the mechanical man also kept to himself. Dodger had nothing to say to either of them, until they reached the outskirts of town.
“You two ready for this?” he asked as the three came to a halt.
“I suppose so,” Lelanea said.
“No,” Torque said. “But I shall fake it as best I can.”
“How do you intend for this to happen?” Lelanea said. “Shall I play the quiet spouse? Follow you two steps behind as you negotiate the terms of our purchase?”
“A quiet spouse is a great idea,” Dodger said.
Lelanea pressed her lips together, forming white lines of frustration.
Before she could lash out at him for agreeing with her, Dodger added, “But I was thinking I should play the quiet one. You know, the strong and silent type?”
She grinned. “Do you think?”
“I do. After all, you know what we are after, and how it works. I’m sure, given time, I could learn. But that’s time we don’t have. I have, on the other hand, been known to be fairly observant. So, you do the talking and I’ll follow with open eyes and a silent tongue. But only if you keep it straightforward and quick. I don’t want to be here longer than needed. We’re already wasting a lot of time as is. In and out. Deal?” Dodger stuck out his hand.
Lelanea grabbed it and gave it a quick pump. “Deal. In and out. Simple enough.”
“Her in charge?” Torque said with a snort. “You act as if that is a new concept.”
“Then you should be used to me bossing you around,” Lelanea said. “Get moving, now.”
She led the troupe to the edge of town, where she paused a moment to read the sign that proclaimed the town as Jubilee, not Boulder Shadow.
“So much for this being the same town,” Dodger said.
“This is the right place,” Torque said. “I don’t care what the sign says.”
“We need directions,” Lelanea said. “Perhaps these folks have heard of Boulder Shadow.”
“Best place for directions would be the inn,” Dodger said. “Which is usually the largest building.”
She looked up and down the street, then pointed to the building in question at the center of town. “There. Yes?”
Dodger nodded. “Looks about right.”
“Good, then. Let’s go and see if they know where this blasted town is supposed to be.”
“I’m telling you we are in the correct place,” Torque said as Lelanea walked away. “But I see we aren’t going to believe the inscrutable butler. I suppose my opinion isn’t good enough?”
Dodger kept his opinions to himself as he followed his new wife into town.