A Rock and a Hard Place
In which Dodger is stuck
Just when Dodger thought the thunder of the collapse would never cease, the mines went suddenly and eerily silent. He raised his head and glanced about, not surprised to find the machine surrounded by a wall of black. Someone to his right let out a deep series of coughs. Dodger tried to keep his own breaths shallow to keep from inhaling too much of the lingering dust.
“Is everyone all right?” Dodger said.
“Other than a twisted ankle,” Marlow said between coughs, “I am still alive.”
“As am I,” Lelanea said. “Boon?”
A steady tap answered in the positive.
“Mayor White?” Dodger said.
“Mayor White?” Dodger repeated. “Are you injured?”
No answer came.
“Herbert?” Marlow said. “Answer us.”
“Why can’t you just leave me be?” White whined.
“He’s fine,” Marlow said with a huff.
“Boon?” Dodger said. “Are either of Torque’s lights-”
Before Dodger could finish the question, a soft glow filled the cavern. Dodger winced at the sudden intrusion, holding his hand before his eyes until his vision slowly adjusted to the light. The chamber wasn’t as blocked as Dodger at first feared it would be, though it was a good thing they opted to take shelter under the automaton. The place was a sea of rubble and rock, with most exits completely obstructed. A few however appeared only partially blocked. Maybe with a little heavy lifting, and a whole lot of elbow grease, the group could make a timely escape.
“What a useful trick,” Marlow said, staring at Torque in awe.
“One of the benefits of technology,” Dodger said and glanced to the mayor.
White snorted and turned away in disgust.
“Looks like we’re stuck,” Marlow said.
“Not entirely,” Dodger said. He motioned to at least three possible exits. “Those tunnels may be usable, if we can clear ‘em.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but most of these tunnels lead deeper into the mines. Only two lead out.” Marlow pointed to the exit across from him. “That’s the one that leads back to the inn, and the one across is the only one that leads to the surface.” He thumbed over his shoulder to the second tunnel.
Both were blocked by matching, gigantic boulders. Even with all the elbow grease in the world, Dodger and company could never dream of lifting those things. Unless they could employ something bigger. Heavier. Stronger. Movement caught Dodger’s eye, and he glanced over to spy Lelanea leaning into Torque, whispering something to the trapped spirit of her not quite dead lover.
“You two planning something without me?” Dodger asked, sidling up to the pair.
“Boon wants to try and see if he can activate PAUL,” Lelanea said.
“You think you can get us out of here with that thing?”
I … can … try …
“I think you can, too,” Dodger said. “We will load you up, but you have to take it slow when you get there. That thing is covered in a lot of debris. The last thing you want to do is bring it down on us.”
Understood. Without further discussion, Torque went slack as the electric blue spark of Boon faded from the metal frame.
“What happened?” Marlow asked.
“I warned you,” White said. “Machines are unreliable.”
“Not this one,” Dodger said. “Lelanea? You got it yet?”
“I think so,” she said.
Sure enough, the light faded back into view, only this time a bit dimmer thanks to the change in source. Lelanea stood beside of Torque’s still form, clutching Boon’s glowing cylinder. She looked up to the machine towering above her, using the cylinder like a torch, seeking the control panel. Dodger joined her in scanning the machine.
“Uncle said it would be along the breastbone,” Lelanea said.
“Is that it?” Dodger said, pointing to a square painted to look like the bib of an overall.
“I suppose so.” Lelanea reached up, her fingertips just brushing the metal. “I can’t reach it.”
“What are you doing?” White said.
Dodger tried his luck, but couldn’t reach high enough to put enough pressure against the panel. “It’s too far up.”
“Leave that thing alone,” White said, lowering his nephew and getting to his feet. “You don’t know what you’re messing with.”
“Allow me,” Marlow said, and limped forward. The much taller undertaker reached up, raising his hand to touch the chest of the rusted metal man. He pushed, hard, loosening the panel with a stilted grunt. “I assume this is what you’re looking for.”
The panel slid away.
Dodger glanced up into the complicated guts of the metal man. “I reckon so. Would you do the honor?”
“I said get away from there!” White yelled.
The mine grumbled with his anger.
“For God’s sake,” Marlow said. “Shut up, Herbert. It’s your fault we are all down here to begin with. These young folks are trying to help.” He turned his attention back to Dodger. “What is it I am doing, exactly?”
Lelanea held the cylinder above her head, directing the glow toward the open cavity. “You see that port there, with the tube inside of it?”
“Stop it,” White said.
“The one for the grind settings?” Marlow said.
“That’s the one,” Lelanea said. “Pull out that tube and replace it with this one.”
“What is it?”
Lelanea thought about this a second before she said, “Think of it as an alternate power source.”
“Stop it!” White shouted as he backed away from the group.
The mine groaned again. Bits of ceiling dropped here and there.
“What will happen?” Marlow said.
“Depends on how much of the original machine is still working,” Lelanea said. “It looks fairly intact.”
“Save for the power supply and the damage to the head, it is.” Marlow yanked on the grinder setting tube, tossing it aside once it was free. “You’re lucky any of the machine is left at all. The town wanted to dismantle and dispose of it, but Herbert said he wanted it left as a reminder of our sins for bringing it into our lives in the first place. I always suspected he wanted to keep it intact so he could sell it. For a profit of course.”
“Please,” White said in a softer voice. “I am begging you. Don’t bring that monster back to life. Think of little Jubilee. Think of our town.”
“You mean think of how you’ve manipulated everyone to ease your guilty mind? Your carelessness got your granddaughter killed. You drove Travis away by trying to destroy PAUL. You’ve kept this town under your guilty thumb for far too long. It’s time people knew the truth.”
“Please. Don’t do this to me. I’ll be ruined.”
“You’ll be dead if we don’t,” Dodger said.
“Please,” White begged.
Marlow ignored the plea of his mayor, reaching up to insert the SPOOK. Once the SPOOK slipped into PAUL, the glow faded, leaving the survivors in the dark once more.
“How long will this take?” Marlow said.
“I don’t know,” Lelanea said. “Hopefully not long. This dark is really creepy.”
The conversation hit a lull then, a pause made doubly long by the complete darkness and dangerous situation. Dodger worked up something to say, just to fill in the spaces, but he couldn’t manage to think of a single thing. His mind drew a blank in his worry.
Thankfully, neither the dark nor the silence lasted long. With a flickering jolt and sizzling zap, PAUL lit from top to bottom with that familiar electric blue light. The light intensified, shining bright for a few seconds, then settled into a soft glow. The metal head shifted slowly from side to side.
“Hello?” Boon said.
“Boon?” Lelanea said.
“It’s me, yes.”
“Unbelievable,” Marlow said. “How is this possible?”
“I couldn’t begin to explain,” Dodger said.
Marlow shook his head. “I think you could, but I just wouldn’t understand.”
“Can you manage it inside of there, Boon?” Lelanea said.
“I think so,” Boon said. “Though it kind of feels like an oversized pair of shoes.”
“Your manservant sounds different in that thing,” Marlow said.
“He is different,” Dodger said.
“Good,” Lelanea said. “I’ll tend to the wounded man. You two find a way out of here.” She rushed to Benton’s side, eager to help the fallen man.
“How’s it work?” Dodger said, tapping the metal casing.
“Different,” Boon said. “But similar enough to Torque.”
“Can you maneuver it at all?”
Boon slowly flexed one of the giant hands. “I can move, but I am afraid to try and get upright. You’re right. There is a lot of debris on the back of this beast. I feel like I have ten tons on me.”
“Take it slow,” Dodger said. “Don’t crush us little folks trying to get yourself free.”
Dodger motioned for everyone to step away from PAUL’s cover. “Everyone get back and give him room to move about. The sooner he can free himself, the quicker he can free us.”
“No!” White yelled. “I won’t let you set that thing loose on my town.”
Dodger looked back to see the mayor had managed to make it halfway across the cavern, crawling over debris and rubble in his fear of the massive machine. “Mayor White, Boon won’t hurt you. You have to trust us.”
“Stop telling me what I have to do!” White screamed.
The mines grumbled once more, this time letting loose with another shower of rock and stone. A particularly large chunk broke from the ceiling and hurtled toward a cowering White. He tried to move aside, but it was no good. The man was too frail and slow to dodge the falling debris in time. Just as the giant rock threatened to crush White, an even larger metal hand shot across the room and caught the boulder. Boon gently lowered the rock to one side of the mayor, reeled the arm back to himself and continued clearing his own bulk from the rubble. The act was so casual, so natural, it was as if Boon spent his whole life saving elderly men from falling rocks.
“Waa?” White said, as if unsure what had just happened.
“I think that monster just saved your life,” Marlow said.
White backed away a little more, until he met with a wall of stone. There, he slid down until his rump landed in the dirt, and hung his head between his boney knees, defeated at last. A soft weeping rose from the broken man.
Boon continued to clear the machine from the rock, shaking off the last of the debris with a graceful shimmy. “All clear. I think.”
“Looks like you’ve got the hang of it,” Dodger said.
“It’s much easier than Torque. I don’t feel like anyone is fighting me for control.”
Dodger considered the mayor’s anger at the machine, and the extent of the damage done to PAUL. “Maybe no one is.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Dodger said. “You think you can clear one of these tunnels?”
“I can do better than that. Hold on.” Boon extended one of the metal arms toward the ceiling and paused, as if waiting for something to happen. “Hang on. Give it a second. There it goes!”
The machine’s right hand tightened, the fingers drawing close together until they formed a cone. This cone then began to spin, and spin, and spin until all Dodger could make out was a blur of whirring metal. At that sight, he had a pretty fair idea of what Boon intended.
“Oh no,” Dodger said.
“Oh yeah,” Boon said.
Dodger’s eyes went wide with half fear, half astonishment as he realized Boon truly intended to burrow a hole in the ceiling.