In which Dodger gets a little unexpected help
“I’m sorry,” Dodger said again. He knew apologizing wouldn’t fix the situation; neither did it make him feel better to say it. In truth, he didn’t know why he kept repeating it.
“Six times,” Lelanea said.
Dodger furrowed his brow. “Six times?”
“I’ve been tied up to someone else exactly six times in my life. Once for pleasure, twice for pain, and three times for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Which means exactly half of the times I’ve ended up bound to someone else, it’s been you. What do you have to say to that?”
Dodger couldn’t help a grin. “Tell me at least one of our times was for pleasure.”
“You know which is which. And I am beginning to wonder if traveling in your company isn’t more dangerous than the dangers you were hired to stop.” Lelanea gave a soft laugh, which stopped short with a sigh. “I can’t feel him.”
“Yes. I don’t sense him.”
“I know what you mean. But if it helps, I couldn’t feel him when he was inside that cylinder to begin with.”
“True. That’s the only thing keeping me from ripping this whole town apart.”
Dodger counted the town’s blessings for them.
“Can you wiggle out of this?” Lelanea said.
“I plan on it,” Dodger said, testing the slackness of the rope. “But I want to be sure that madman is gone for the night.”
“Do you think they will leave us alone?”
“I hope so, but I doubt it. Still, we’ll find a chance to slip away.” Dodger flexed his biceps and relaxed his chest, pleased to feel some give in the bindings. As he held his breath, he swore he heard a steady tapping noise coming from the opposite corner. But that couldn’t be. The only thing in the opposite corner was …
“Did you hear that?” Lelanea said. She sat up straighter and stared hard at Torque. “He is moving. Oh, Dodger, his finger is twitching.”
“It ain’t just twitching. That’s Morse code.” Dodger leaned forward, straining to hear the tips and taps as he translated the message in his head.
I’m … fine …
A flicker of blue life coursed across the metal frame of Torque’s body.
“Thank merciful Kwan Yin,” Lelanea said. “We were worried about you.”
“He said he is fine,” Dodger said.
“I know. I heard him.”
“You know Morse?”
Dodger smirked. “Everything about you surprises me.”
Lelanea rolled her eyes at that. “Boon? Can you move anything else?”
I … think … so …
Torque’s arm raised slowly.
“No,” Lelanea said. “That mayor could come back any moment.”
“She’s right,” Dodger said. “Just lie low until we know they are well gone.”
The arm dropped.
“How is Mr. Torque?” Dodger said. “Can you tell?”
There came a pause, followed by a slow answer. Feels … empty …
“Poor Mr. Torque,” Lelanea said.
Dodger’s guilt doubled while the tapping continued.
Help … you … escape …
“No,” Lelanea said. “It’s too dangerous.”
The tapping went wild in disagreement.
“I’m with the lady on this one,” Dodger said. “You keep still and I’ll tell you when the moment is right.”
A signal of accordance sounded from the machine, and once again it fell still.
“What now?” Lelanea said.
“It’s up to you,” Dodger said. “This was supposed to be your mission.”
“Dodger, don’t insult me. We both know this has gone far beyond my control. Waltzing into a town and sweet talking my way into buying back Uncle’s machine? That I can do. This prisoner thing? This is what we hired you for. Now tell me what to do next.”
Dodger tried to put that ego boost to good use, when there came a steady metallic scraping sound from the back of the basement. “I said, hold still, Boon.”
The sound continued, and it took Dodger a moment to realize it wasn’t coming from the fallen machine. It arose to the machine’s left, where a rack of dusty wine bottles proceeded to slide across the floor in a slow arc. Not just slide away from the wall, the rack slid open from the wall until it revealed an underground tunnel lit by a single, flickering torch.
A familiar man stood in the halo of torchlight, a small canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
“Mr. Marlow?” Lelanea said.
“Please, call me Barnaby,” the undertaker said. The man lowered his bag and torch to the earthen floor of the tunnel behind him before he stepped through the secret doorway, into the basement proper. From the folds of his dark overcoat, he produced a pen knife, opening it slowly as he crossed the floor toward the prisoners.
“Wait now,” Dodger said. “There’s no need for that.”
“For what?” Marlow said. “Do you not desire your freedom? Because I’d be just as glad to leave you here-”
“No,” Lelanea said. “No. Don’t be silly. Of course we want out of here.”
“Then hold still,” Marlow said. “I’ll have you out in a moment.”
A few slices later, both Lelanea and Dodger shook off the remains of the ropes.
“Thanks,” Dodger said.
“Thank you so much,” Lelanea said.
“Trust me when I say it was my pleasure,” Marlow said. He made his way back through the secret door and picked up his torch once more. “You’ll find your unusual weapons in the sack. Grab them and follow me. We haven’t much time. Gerald can only distract the town for so long.”
“The same man that tried to kill our friend?” Lelanea said.
“Yes, and as impossible as it is to believe, he didn’t mean to harm anyone.”
“You’re right,” Dodger said. “That is impossible to believe.”
“I understand your anger, but trust me when I say he thought he was helping.” Marlow nodded to Torque in the far corner. “I am sorry about leaving your butler behind, but we can’t risk the dead weight slowing us down.”
“Yeah,” Dodger said. “About that …”
Before Dodger could explain the machine was less dead than weight, the broken form of Torque lit with a soft, blue crackling glow. He got to his unsteady metal feet and turned to face the undertaker. Well, more like turned in the direction of Marlow, considering Torque’s ruined head hung in an unnatural angle to the rest of his body.
Marlow’s eyes shot wide with fear as his lower jaw quivered.
“Don’t panic,” Lelanea said. “Our friend is injured but as you can see, he is still in working order.”
“And he’s coming with us,” Dodger said. He made a show of checking Florence’s chamber as he added, “Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not at all,” Marlow said in a much steadier voice. “I don’t mind his presence. In fact, most folks around here are indifferent to such things. I was just surprised to find him still operational. Forgive my panic. Now, follow me. We must hurry.” The undertaker crouched into the tunnel beyond, leaving Dodger and Lelanea to either follow or be left behind.
“Ladies first,” Dodger said, holding his hand out to her.
Lelanea shuffled into the tunnel behind Marlow.
“Boon, you go next,” Dodger said. “Can you see where you’re going?”
Sort … of … Boon said.
“Go on then. I’ll be at your back.”
“Pull the rack closed behind you,” Marlow said from further up the tunnel. “You’ll find a brace to bar it from this side as well. It won’t stall Hebert for long, but it might give us enough time to get a good deal ahead of him.”
Dodger did as instructed, pulling against the wine rack until it slipped back into place. He shoved the two by four into the slots provided, giving the door a good push to make sure it was secure. “I take it this is how White’s nephew snuck up on us?”
“Yes. It’s a more direct route to the mines so it is much faster. We used to use it to run supplies to the mines when they were still operational. And again, I apologize for Gerald’s actions. If he were able, he would ask for your forgiveness himself.”
“I would be hard pressed to forgive such a thing. Mr. Torque is annoying, but peaceful enough. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless you count verbal insults.”
A wild series of taps expressed Boon’s opinion on the matter—a string of choice words Dodger felt was better left unsaid.
“Torque?” Marlow asked.
Dodger could’ve bit his tongue in two.
“I thought I heard you call it Boon?” Marlow said. “Which is it?”
“It’s complicated,” Dodger said.
“Then allow me to ask this in a more direct manner. Who are you, really?”
“We work for Professor Dittmeyer,” Lelanea said before Dodger could think of a good excuse.
Ah well, perhaps the truth was for the best now that everything had gone to hell.
“I thought as much,” Marlow said. “Are you still Carpenters?”
“Only when the roof leaks,” Dodger said.
Marlow snorted a short laugh. “All right then, I will refrain from prying any further.”
“Do you mind if I ask something?” Lelanea said.
“Feel free. I suppose it’s only fair.”
“Why are you doing this? Not that we don’t appreciate your assistance, but, well, why?”
“Why?” Marlow echoed. “Because not all of us are quite as frightened of progress as Herbert White wants people to believe. In fact, we once prided ourselves on being a rather progressive little town. Take me, for instance; in any other place I’d only bury my fellow freemen, if I were allowed to hold a professional position at all. But here, in Jubilee, I bid farewell to everyone, equally. And not one thinks twice about it.”
Dodger had considered the prominent position the man held in contrast with his race. Not that Dodger ever cared about such things, but others sure did. Enough to fight over it. Enough to kill over it. “So why the fear of machines?”
“Not just any machine. Our mayor doesn’t mind the train system or the telegraph. He has a particular grudge against intelligent machines. Machines that can think and reason and feel. Machines with soul. Or rather, ones that act like they have a soul.”
Lelanea glanced back over her shoulder to Dodger in confusion for a brief moment.
“Are you talking about PAUL?” Dodger said.
“We were told PAUL wasn’t capable of such things,” Lelanea said.
“So were we,” Marlow said. “Watch this turn up here, it’s very tight.”
The undertaker wasn’t kidding. The next bend in the tunnel narrowed to just a few feet across, leaving Dodger to push Torque through and squeeze in behind the machine. Boon thanked Dodger with a few well timed taps.
“Is your metal friend using Morse?” Marlow said.
“Yes,” Dodger said.
“Don’t worry. I can’t translate what he is saying. I just know it when I hear it.”
“He’s not saying anything worth hiding anyways,” Dodger said.
Marlow went quiet after that, leading the three of them the rest of the way without more discussion. The tunnel itself wasn’t long, considering it was a more direct route to the mines as opposed to the winding path they took earlier via the Rhino. After about a half an hour of travel, Marlow brought the group to a stop at the edge of a large canvas drape. He held his forefinger to his lips, signaling the need for silence, then passed the torch off to Lelanea. Once she had the light source in hand, Marlow cautiously lifted the canvas flap aside and peered beyond the barrier.
“It’s clear,” he said. “I worried he would leave some men here to guard it, all things considered.” Marlow held the canvas to one side, motioning for Lelanea to go first.
Lelanea stepped past him, followed by Boon, and Dodger dutifully fell in last.
Beyond the canvas barrier rested an enormous cavern; a manmade construct kept clear by a series of struts and joists across the walls and ceiling. Several exits branched off from the room in wide, open tunnels, save for the one at the far end of the cavern. That tunnel was half filled with a pile of rubble. Dodger reckoned it was most likely the site of the alleged collapse. The bulk of the remaining space, however, was taken up by a single, large entity.
“Lady and Gentlemen,” Marlow said, “allow me to introduce you to PAUL.”
Dodger raised his head, whistling as he craned his neck to take in the massive bulk of the metal man.