A Little Bit You
In which Dodger wonders who is who
Most of the ride back was spent in silence. Dodger knew Lelanea was worried for Mr. Torque, but he was also a tad worried about Boon. Something was off with that boy. Dodger couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but Boon knowing things he shouldn’t know, then acting indifferent to Torque like that, well, it just wasn’t natural.
“Did you get what you came after?” Lelanea said, pulling Dodger from his reverie.
“What do you mean what I came after?” Dodger said.
“You know what I mean.”
They rode along in silence for a bit, Dodger daring her to explain, but knowing she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“How long have you known?” he finally asked.
“Since we left,” she said. “Uncle made the mistake of telling Boon about the dangerous power supply. And you know Boon can’t keep anything from me.”
“Yes. Ah. I appreciate everyone’s attempt at a genteel attitude, but I am not a delicate flower. Stop treating me like one. You don’t need to hide things from me. I have a right to know what is going on.”
“I only do what my boss man tells me.”
“Yes. Ah. And for the record, I have never seen you as a flower, delicate or otherwise.”
Lelanea smirked. “Is that so? What do you see me as?”
The smirk evaporated. “Very funny.”
“How about one of those meat eating plants?”
Lelanea punched Dodger on the arm, an act that forced Dodger to forget about his aching back and start worrying about the welt surely rising on his bicep. After this exchange, they faced the journey back to the Sleipnir with a lighter heart and a cheerier attitude, enjoying the crisp night air in the open vehicle. They returned to the line in a little under an hour, an unheralded arrival back to reality.
A reality that included a massive pile of discarded metal and junk lying next to the cargo cab.
“I wonder if Boon made it back,” Dodger said as Lelanea eased the Rhino up next to the line.
“It looks like it,” Lelanea said. “See the glow coming from the cargo cab?”
Dodger saw it then, the soft blue halo around the cargo cab door. “This pile must be the scrap they pulled from the empty bin.” He rounded the small hill of metal, only to come to rest at a smaller hill of books. “Wait now, what is this?” Dodger leaned over and picked up a paperback, glancing down at the title.
“A Maid of Honor?” he read aloud. He grabbed another one. “The Blushing Bride? What is this?”
“Oh dear,” Lelanea said. “They must be Mr. Torque’s books.”
“Why am I not surprised he reads this garbage?”
“Dodger, they are Mr. Torque’s books.”
Dodger understood her that time. “You mean he wrote these?”
“All of them?” he said.
She nodded again.
He eyed the pile of what appeared to be at least three hundred dime novels. Maybe more. “But there are so many of them. I knew he had some in his hold, but where was he keeping the rest?”
“In the coal bin,” the doc said. He stepped off the line, hopping down from the meeting cab staircase with a long, sorrowful face. “Apparently they are all first editions. I forbid him from keeping them on the train, but he hid them anyways. He thought I didn’t know.”
“Uncle,” Lelanea said, rushing to his side. She hugged him tightly. “I am so sorry about Mr. Torque. How is he?”
The doc nodded. “He’ll be fine.”
“That’s good to hear,” Dodger said.
“Most of his processes were shredded by the shot, but thankfully the bullet barely nicked his main personality core. Lucky for him I keep a spare head for just such accidents.”
“Then you can fix him?”
“I can. I have. I’ve just finished. He’s as right as rain.”
“Thank heavens,” Lelanea said. “And Boon?”
“Oh, he is good as well.”
She looked about. “Where is he?”
“Helping Ched situate PAUL into the cargo bay. Once he gets the machine settled in, I’ll get him out of that cylinder. I’m sure he would love to stretch his ethereal legs for a bit.”
“I’m sure he would.”
“I guess that went better than expected,” Dodger said.
“What does that mean?” the doc said.
“For once, nothing major went wrong.”
“Oh, yes,” the doc said. “Nothing at all.” The man patted his hands together and tried to grin as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Dodger sensed the man’s discomfort. “Doc? Is there something you’re not telling us?”
The doc looked down at the pile of books. “Who knew one manservant could write so much smut?”
“Uncle?” Lelanea said.
The doc ignored her. “I do hate to just leave his things lying about like this, but we have to abandon them to make room for PAUL. Or rather Boon.”
“Sir?” Dodger said. “Are you certain Torque is completely fine?”
The doc ignored him, too. “It’s the reason I needed for you to take Mr. Torque with you in the first place, you see. If he had known I planned to leave his books behind, he would’ve been unbearable. I mean, as it is he’s ...” The doc’s eyes went wide as he covered his mouth.
“Nofin’,” he said behind his hand. “Hefs nofin’.”
“Doc?” Dodger said.
The doc eyed Dodger. Between his fingers he said, “Mr. Dodger, can we have a word in private?”
“No,” Lelanea said. “Stop treating me like a child. I am a grown woman, three times your age! Just tell me what’s going on.”
The doc lowered his hand as well as his head. He drew a deep breath, then raised his face again to look his niece in the eye. “You’re right. I should treat my elders with more respect. It’s just, well, Ludda, I don’t care how old you are. I’ve come to think of you as the daughter I never had.”
Lelanea lost her sudden anger. “Hieronymus, you old softy.” She drew him to her, cuddling him to her bosom. She cooed at him as she stroked his hair. “You know I love you too, but you mustn’t spare my feelings. I am a big girl. I can handle far more than you think.”
“I know,” he said, his voice muffled by her cleavage. The doc pulled away from her and settled himself with another deep breath. “Right. Explain it to you. I can do that. As I understand, the bullet grazed Torque’s personality core while Boon was in control. Yes?”
“I’m afraid there was some damage not only to Torque, but too Boon as well.”
“Damage?” Lelanea looked to Dodger, then back to her uncle. “What kind of damage?”
“Nothing physical. I mean, they are both physically intact. But … they … well … it’s terribly hard to explain.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. There has been a bit of a mix up. Something between the two of them, some path, some basic essence has, well, for lack of a better word, crossed. I don’t know how, or why. And quite frankly, I don’t know how to uncross it.”
“I still don’t get what you’re saying,” Dodger said.
Without warning, Torque burst forth from the meeting cab, flinging himself down the steps and shooting toward Lelanea. “Lelanea, my love!” When he reached her, he scooped her up into his metal arms and swung her around and around. “My darling! My sweetheart! My love!”
Lelanea flailed and writhed in his grasp. “Mr. Torque! Let me down, you metal maniac! Before I rip your arms from your sockets and beat you to death with them.”
Torque released the growling woman, then stood back and clasped his hands as he sighed at her. “There’s that saucy little temper I love so much.” He nudged Dodger. “Isn’t she a peach? A peach, I tell you. Our courtship must be the envy of the gods themselves.”
“Courtship?” Lelanea said, her face twisting into a look of utter contempt laced with total disgust.
“Doc?” Dodger said, doing his best to repress a chuckle.
“I know,” the professor said. “He’s been mooning over her like that since I got him back online. On the upside, he doesn’t seem to care about the books at all.”
“Why should I?” Torque said. He took a kick at the pile. “What good are these poor excuses for romance when I am living the real thing?” He sighed again, tilting his head to one side and … was he smiling?
Dodger supposed the metal man was smiling. “I hate to break up the courtship, but we need to get a move on before we miss our date.”
“A date!” Torque shouted. “What a fantastic idea. Lelanea, you wait here my love and I will gather all the ingredients for a picnic.”
“I am not your love,” Lelanea said. She gathered the edges of her skirt and stormed up the stairs into the meeting cab, slamming the door behind her.
“Wait for me, my love!” Torque said, trailing after her like a love struck puppy.
“Torque,” the doc said. “Go to my lab. Now.”
“But I must see to my love’s every whim-”
“I said now!”
Torque jumped with a start, then hustled onto the train.
Dodger let out a short laugh before he caught himself. “I’m sorry. I’ve just never seen him happy like this.”
“I don’t blame you,” the doc said as he boarded the meeting cab. “I would laugh myself, but I fear the problem is deeper than just Mr. Torque’s confusion.”
Dodger followed him onto the car. “Deeper? How so?”
“The effects extend to Boon.” He plopped into the chair at his desk.
“I figured as much.” Dodger took a seat on the couch and explained the strange occurrences in the cavern; from Boon’s sudden surge of intelligence to the man’s lack of concern for everyone else but himself. “He just didn’t act like Boon. You know?”
“I do know.” The doc slumped against his desk. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”
Dodger stood again, stretching his back once more. “As troubling as this is, we really do need to get along. I’ll go and help Ched load up PAUL. Let me know if I can do anything to help out with Torque.” He opened the cargo car door, nearly mowing down Lelanea heading the other direction. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s fine,” she said, shoving him aside.
Dodger caught a glimpse of red rimmed eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” She stormed through the cab and through the opposite door. The sounds of weeping rose from beyond the cab, fading as she moved through the train.
“Oh dear,” the doc said. “I was afraid of that.” The professor rose and went after his substitute daughter.
Dodger left him to tend to his niece, and went to check on Boon. He slid the cargo door open and stepped into the glowing cab.
The bulk of PAUL was folded, knees to chest, to one side of the cab, leaving a narrow walkway through to the opposite exit.
Dodger whistled in appreciation. “So, how’d they get you in here, big guy?”
“The side opens up now,” Boon said. “There is a crank at the back. They rigged it while we were gone.”
“Huh. That man never ceases to amaze me. What are you still doing in that hunk of metal?”
“I’m stuck until someone pulls me out.”
“I can get you out if you want.”
“Why bother? I’m of more use in here. Just as cold as if I were out there.”
Dodger leaned against the wall of the cab. “What is going on with you and the missus? She left out of here pretty upset.”
“I know. I wished she wouldn’t cry like that. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. I just told her the truth.”
Great, just what the crew needed right now. A pair of quarreling lovers. “What did you say to her?”
There came a long, drawn out pause, as Boon decided how to word his angst. “It’s gone, Dodger.”
“My affection for her. It’s just gone.”
Dodger stood upright, a chill crawling across his skin. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s gone. And it’s not that it faded or moved on. It’s just gone. Like it was never there in the first place.”
“This isn’t funny, Boon.”
“I wished to hell I was only joking, but I am serious. There is a hole inside where my heart used to be. I can’t feel anything. For her. For anyone. I remember … I think I remember something. Something wonderful. Something beautiful. Something I can’t put into words. But even that’s fading. It’s all fading. I’m so cold.”
“You just need to get out of that hunk of junk. Once you’re back on your feet you’ll see the world in a fresh light.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know so. I’ll get your SPOOK out of-”
“You aren’t listening to me!” Boon shouted.
Dodger went quiet.
“Dodger,” Boon said. “Don’t you understand? I don’t love her anymore.”
With those five words Dodger’s sense of joy and wonder came crashing down around him. All he had come to know and hold dear about the good of the world, everything that he had built up to protect himself from the ugliness he came to know so intimately, every beautiful thing evaporated in an instance. His belief in the magnificence of humanity vanished. His faith in love dried up, like a withered peach set out far too long in the sun. For if these two soul mates, these perfect companions, these star crossed lovers … if they could drift apart, could cease loving one another, could turn away from their united destiny, then perhaps everything Dodger knew about the truth of love was just a lie? As the Sleipnir jolted into motion again, Dodger stared at the cold machine that held the spirit, and wondered if, perhaps, Tyler Crank had been right all along.
Perhaps there was no real love in the world after all.
And if there was no love, then what was worth saving?
END VOLUME TEN
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
In which Dodger just doesn't want to talk about it