In which Dodger finds his goal
“The doc wasn’t kidding,” Dodger said, his head still tilted back to take it all in. “That thing is enormous.”
“The doc wasn’t kidding,” Dodger said, his head still tilted back to take it all in. “That thing is enormous.”
PAUL’s basic form was much like Torque in that it had a head, a torso, two arms and two legs. Instead of a human like face, the head was a blank sphere with a square shaped opening toward the bottom front. Its feet were massive but the thing’s hands were even larger. Each palm was an easy three feet across, with an almost matching length from finger to wrist, perfect tools for grasping fallen trees and the likes. The beast was half bent at the waist, as if powering down caused it to droop, much in the manner of Torque. Despite years of rust and wear, Dodger could still tell PAUL had once been painted to look as though he were wearing overalls and a red checked shirt.
“I don’t know if you can see from here,” Marlow said. “But there is a fair amount of damage to its head.”
Dodger strained to see beyond the ring of light. Sure enough, the back of the machine’s head had been opened, with bits of wire and gears hanging free from the bowl of its skull.
“I hope the damage isn’t too extensive,” Lelanea said.
“That won’t be a problem?” Marlow asked. “Will it?”
“I hope not.”
“You should be able to bring your vehicle in via the southeastern tunnel.” Marlow pointed to the tunnel beside of the collapsed one. “Maybe between it and the three of us we can haul PAUL out of here.”
“I would like to try to get it to work first, if you don’t mind.”
“You are welcome to try, but I should warn you, the thing’s power supply is gone.”
“Gone?” Dodger said.
“After Herbert took his aggression out on the poor thing’s head, he removed PAUL’s power source, leaving him immobilized. He’s been like this for three years.”
“So the power source is missing?” Dodger said, trying his best to hide his worry.
“No,” Marlow said. “He wanted me to dispose of it, but I have it safely stored in my parlor.”
“Good,” Lelanea said. “We’ll need it as well before we leave.”
Dodger was pleased she said it first. It was best to follow her lead instead of trying to lead from behind.
“Certainly,” Marlow said. “I will go back and get it here in a minute.”
“What exactly happened here?” Dodger said.
“Dodger,” Lelanea scolded. “It’s not ours to pry.”
“I don’t mind sharing,” Marlow said. “Though it is a sad story to be sure.”
“Perhaps I should tell it,” Mayor White said. The man stepped out from behind PAUL’s right leg, revealing not only himself but also an impressive pistol. “Come on out, Gerald.”
His nephew dutifully shuffled out from behind PAUL’s left leg.
“Sorry, Barnaby,” Benton said. “I tried not to tell him, but you know how he is.”
Marlow smiled in understanding. “Yes, I do know.”
“Why don’t you folks put your hands where I can see them?” White said.
Everyone opposite White’s side of the gun, including Boon, slowly raised their hands.
White narrowed his eyes and shifted his weapon to the broken form of Torque. “What is he doing still up and kicking?”
“As I am sure you’ve already discovered,” Lelanea said, “Professor Dittmeyer’s creations are difficult to destroy.”
The mayor grunted rather than answer that.
“How did you get here so quickly?” Marlow asked.
“The minute I saw my fool nephew,” White said, “I knew something was going on, and I knew what it was. Thankfully my horse was still saddled up.”
“Herbert, just let the kids go. They don’t want any trouble.”
“Then they should’ve stayed away. They shouldn’t have dragged that evil thing into my town.” White waved his gun at Torque. “You want a story? You want to know what happened here? That monster killed my granddaughter.”
Dodger looked to the silent machine again. Surely there was more to the truth than the grandfather’s version of the story. It wasn’t like the doc to create something even remotely capable of killing a child. Dodger thought on that idea for a split second. It wasn’t like the doc, but it was like a certain mutt. Which left Dodger to wonder if the whole thing was just another notch in Rex’s grand plan to rule the world.
“It wasn’t supposed to think,” White said. He stared into the distance, taking on a faraway look. “It wasn’t supposed to be nice or mean or any damned thing. It was supposed to cut down trees. That was it. It wasn’t supposed to make its own choices. It wasn’t supposed to go where ever it wanted. Go where it was never intended.”
“What changed?” Dodger said.
“What?” White said, his attention driven back to the moment by Dodger’s question.
“We know Dittmeyer didn’t create it that way. So, what changed about it?”
“Hard to say,” Marlow said.
“I’ll tell you what happened to the damned thing,” White said. “Travis Bradshaw happened to it.”
Travis? Where had Dodger heard that name before? “You mean the mine foreman?”
“I mean the betrayer,” White snapped.
“You’re correct, Mr. Dodger,” Marlow said. “Travis was in charge of the mining operations. When the mines stopped paying out, it was his idea to find some help in clearing the surrounding land. He was the one that suggested hiring Dittmeyer to make us an automaton to do the work for us.”
“That bastard double crossed us,” White said. “He told us we needed the machine, but what he wanted was a damned son. Travis treated it like it was his flesh and blood. He taught the demon to act like a human. Even taught it how to kill like one.”
“That isn’t fair,” Marlow said. “PAUL may have learned how to act like people, but he was always a good creature at heart-”
“No!” White shouted over the undertaker. The gun’s aim wavered, drooping lower and lower toward the ground. “That thing lured her down here, killed her, and then buried her under the cold stones to hide his shame.”
“We both know that’s a lie, Herbert.” Marlow lowered his hands as White lowered his gun. “We both know what really happened here. Don’t we?”
“I know what happened. I will never forget it.”
“You know Jubilee came down here on her own. She was playing in the wrong place at the wrong time and she triggered the collapse, not PAUL. You know PAUL came down here after the cave-in started. He was trying to rescue her.”
“She would’ve never wandered down here on her own! She knew better!”
“She was a curious child. You couldn’t keep her in her crib when she was a babe, much less out of your mines once she was old enough to explore on her own.”
“She was never old enough.” White’s eyes welled with tears.
“Herbert, listen to me.” Marlow took on a look of grief tinged with pity at White’s sorrowful display. “I’m your oldest friend. I know this has been killing you inside for years. Jubilee loved PAUL as much as Travis ever did. This place has always been prone to collapses. You know-”
“Shut your worthless mouth!” White yelled over Marlow. The mayor lifted the gun and aimed it straight at the undertaker. “I won’t have some upstart darkie telling me what I know!”
Marlow physically recoiled from the verbal slap. His face slowly slipped from the kind worry through disgust and finally settling on disappointment. He raised his hands again, showing White he meant no harm.
The pair of men went quiet; White seething with ire and Marlow silenced by the insult.
“Uncle?” Benton said. “Why don’t you just let these strangers take what they came for? You’ve wanted to get rid of it for years anyways.”
“Because then he wouldn’t have anything to blame,” Marlow said.
“Be quiet,” White said, the gun now shaking in his trembling hand.
“If these good people take the machine, then folks may start coming down here again.”
“I said shut your fool mouth.”
But Marlow wasn’t having any of that. “And if they come down here, then they might see the truth for themselves. Isn’t that right, Mayor?” The undertaker gave a loud snort. “Or is that just the worthless opinion of an upstart darkie?”
“Shut up!” White screamed. The mayor grabbed the gun with both hands to keep his aim steady, though it did little good to cease the tremors considering the man shook all over with rage.
“What is the truth?” Dodger said, his curiosity getting the best of him.
“That this whole mine is held up with no more than a lick and a promise.”
White didn’t argue. He kept the weapon trained on Marlow, as well as his cruel glare.
“Before PAUL joined us,” Marlow explained, “our illustrious mayor brought lumber in from further north to shore up the mines. Cheap lumber. The cheaper the better.”
“That’s a lie,” White said.
“No it ain’t,” Benton said.
Every eye turned to him, surprised by his interjection.
“Gerald,” White said. “You say another word and so help me I’ll-”
“You’ll what?” Benton said. “Shoot me? Shoot Barnaby? Well, I don’t care if you shoot me.” Benton turned to Dodger and Lelanea. “The beams were already half rotten by the time Travis got them, but he did what he could with them. We all did. A lot of good men died down here from collapse after collapse, but my uncle wouldn’t see fit to reinforce the tunnels. He’d just find some new desperate suckers to work for him.”
“You see,” Marlow said, “that’s why Travis wanted PAUL in the first place; for access to better lumber. But even then, Herbert’s greed wouldn’t let him do the right thing. He sold every stick of the good stuff, keeping only enough lumber to build his little fiefdom. And even then, half of our houses were made with twigs and stone from lack of good wood.”
White looked up to Marlow with a sneer. “You don’t understand. It was good business.”
“Fess up, Herb. Thanks to your good business, this place has always been one shove away from collapse. It’s just unfortunate that young Jubilee provided the shove.”
“She was only seven,” White said softly, tears slipping down his quivering chin. “She shouldn’t have been down here.”
“Look at you now. You used to be happy with all that money, until God saw fit to take your granddaughter as a price for your greed.”
That little jab seemed to be the breaking point for White, as he finally fired his threatened shot at the undertaker. Thankfully, his aim was too shaky, and the bullet just grazed Marlow’s left arm. It also whizzed past Dodger close enough for him to hear, striking a wooden strut behind him.
The depths of the mine rumbled in response.
Dodger responded too, leaping forward with every intention of wrestling the gun away from the fool mayor. But before Dodger could reach the man, Benton jumped his uncle instead. The two fell to the ground, rolling around in the rocks and dirt like a bunch of kids fighting over a tin soldier instead of a dangerous weapon. The gun went off several times, whether out of the mayor firing deliberately at his nephew, or just a result of the rough handling, Dodger couldn’t be sure. Most of the shots went wide, striking support after joist, fracturing the rotten wood and sending the mines into a fit of groans and tremors.
At the last shot fired, the innkeeper gave a grunt of pain and fell back, away from his uncle. A rose of blood blossomed from his shirt.
“No!” the mayor cried. He tossed the gun to the dirt and scrambled to the fallen man’s side.
“You shot me?” Benton asked. A look of confusion took him as a thin ribbon of blood escaped his lips.
White lifted the man’s head into his lap. “Why didn’t you just listen to me? I told you to stay out of this.”
“You shot me.” Benton sighed in a long groan, shivered from crown to sole, then went limp.
“Gerald?” the mayor said. He shook the man hard. “Gerald? Don’t you die on me, boy.”
Without warning, the floor of the mine pitched, nearly tossing Dodger and company to their rumps.
“We need to get out of here,” Marlow said. “This place is going to collapse any minute.”
“It’s a shame we can’t take him with us,” Dodger said, nodding to the huge machine looming in the shadows.
“Perhaps we can return for him when it is safer,” Lelanea said. “Mayor White? Come with us. It’s time to get out of here.”
“Go away,” White said, rocking the unmoving body of his nephew. “Leave us be.”
“You’re going to die if you stay here,” Dodger said.
“I’d rather die!” White yelled.
“Don’t be a fool. Herbert,” Marlow said. “Get up and let the young man help-”
The mines roared over Marlow’s voice, throwing dust and rocks into the air in its wrath. Rocks and debris fell from the ceiling, crashing here and there without concern for the humans lingering beneath. Exit after exit collapsed while Dodger continued to beg the mayor to get moving.
“We need to get to safety!” Dodger cried over the falling rubble. He tugged at White’s elbow. “Let me carry your nephew!”
“No!” White yelled, hugging his nephew tighter. “You won’t take the last of my family from me!”
“Dodger!” Lelanea shouted. “We have to get out of here, now!”
“I won’t leave them here!” Dodger glanced frantically around, until his eyes landed on an interesting possibility—the halfcocked body of PAUL formed a small but viable cover. “There! Everyone get under PAUL!”
Lelanea helped Boon find his way to the machine, while Dodger yanked the mayor by the right arm, trying to drag him along the floor of the mines with the nephew in tow. Marlow understood what Dodger was trying to do, and began pulling on White’s other arm. It wasn’t an easy task, but between the two of them they managed to yank the mayor and innkeeper to the relative safety of PAUL’s enormous shadow. Dodger crouched over the men, wrapping his body and arms around them, trying to protect the fragile pair from the imminent danger. In the midst of the thundering roar of falling rocks, Dodger concentrated on three heartbeats; the fluttering worry of the elderly uncle, the faint tremors of the injured nephew, and his own agitated thump. To this triple pounding rhythm Dodger closed his eyes and waited for the end to the collapsing madness.