Break on Through
In which Dodger helps everyone out the other side
“Everyone take cover!” Dodger shouted.
Lelanea leapt to her feet and lifted the injured Benton, cradling the grown man in her arms—a feat that brought a double take from Marlow. But explaining Lelanea’s unusual strength was the least of their worries. Dodger did his best to round up the survivors, rushing them against the farthest heaps of rubble for protection. The cavern trembled and shook while Boon used his handy drill to bore into the ceiling. The living folks, not protected by a ton of iron and steel, cowered against one another, waiting for this new madness to end. Finally, Boon managed to break through the rock and earth, opening a considerable hole in the roof of the cave. Through this hole came a stream of night air and moonlight. Dodger paused a moment to take a deep breath, appreciating the fresh air, before he laid into Boon.
“For damnation’s sake, Boon!” Dodger said as he stormed up to the machine. “You could’ve crushed all of us. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” Boon said, “that I could get us out of here a lot faster if I cut a hole in the ceiling. And I will.” He held a metal hand out, offering Dodger a lift.
“You’re joking,” Dodger said.
“It’s the fastest way out of here.”
Dodger waved his hands to the ceiling. “How did you even know you’d get through to the outside?”
“I was able to extrapolate the distance between the reading on Mr. Torque’s LISP and the compass on PAUL to determine that we are at approximately the same coordinates as our previous visit.” The metal head tipped to one side. “Weird. Where did that come from?”
“I’d like to know as well.”
“Move,” Lelanea said, still clutching Benton to her. “I need to get this man out of here.”
Grumbling, Dodger moved aside and let Lelanea by. “I still think clearing a tunnel would’ve been safer.”
“Safer,” Boon said, “but slower. We have to get out of here now. This place is ready to collapse. I can sense the stress and breaking point of every beam in this place.”
“PAUL was probably equipped with such processes,” Lelanea said. She draped the injured man across Boon’s palm. “Be careful with him.”
Boon held out his other hand and waited for Lelanea to climb aboard. “Ready?”
Lelanea settled in and clutched the oversized thumb. “Go ahead.”
Dodger stepped back as Boon lifted both hands up and out of the hole, telescoping the arms once more to reach beyond the ceiling of the cavern. In the thin stream of moonlight, Dodger could just make out the curve of Lelanea’s thigh as she crawled off the open palm above him. Dodger lowered his gaze to the floor, before she caught him peeping up her skirt.
“Let me know when you’re ready for the rest of us,” Dodger said, and hurried off to help the others. By the soft glow of Boon’s light, he found Marlow squatting beside the defeated mayor. “How is he?”
Marlow looked up from the mayor. “Not good. He’s been in denial for so long, I think he was starting to believe his own lies. The shock of all of this may have been too much for him.”
The once boisterous, commanding figure was now curled into a ball of self-loathing and mourning and regret.
“We need to get him out of here,” Dodger said. “I can carry him if I have to.”
“You might just,” Marlow said. “I don’t think he is going anywhere on his own.” Marlow stood, wincing as he did. “And I don’t think I am going to be much help.”
“You worry about yourself. I’ll get him.” Dodger lifted the frail old man into his arms and staggered along behind the limping undertaker. “Here, Boon. Take White first.” Dodger sat the mayor onto Boon’s hand.
The man slumped forward, nearly falling off and not caring one bit.
“Mayor White?” Dodger said. “You have to hold on, or you’ll fall off.”
“Good,” White said. “I don’t deserve to live.”
“White, please listen to me. You have to hold on. Boon can get you out of here, but you have to help him help you.”
“Just leave me down here to die.”
“It’s no good,” Marlow said. “He’s a broken man.”
“Boon,” Dodger said, looking up to the big guy. “Brace him with your other hand. Don’t let him fall.”
“Yes, sir,” Boon said, and did as asked, lifting the mayor out of the cavern with both hands.
“That’s far enough,” Leleanea said.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” Marlow said as he looked up the shaft, “but that wife of yours is an … unusual woman.”
“I don’t mind,” Dodger said. “I don’t think she would mind either.”
Marlow looked to him with a grin. “I think I will pass on telling her so.”
“That is probably for the best.”
“I have never seen a young woman carry a full grown man in such a manner.”
“Oh, that?” Dodger rubbed the back of his neck, trying to come up with a suitable excuse.
“You don’t have to explain,” Marlow said before Dodger could say anything else.
“Thanks. And since we are clearing the air down here, she isn’t my wife.”
“I’m not surprised. I don’t think such spirit could belong to any one man.”
“I wouldn’t say that. Right Boon?”
“Huh?” Boon said.
“Our friend here was saying Lelanea couldn’t belong to just one man.”
“Yeah, I guess not.”
Dodger didn’t know what to think of that.
“I’ve got him!” Lelanea shouted down the shaft.
Boon lowered his hands again.
Dodger helped Marlow onto the metal palm. “Take him on up.”
Once Marlow was safely above ground, Boon returned his palm to Dodger. “Climb aboard.”
“Hang on a second,” Dodger said, moving back to help Torque.
“Come on now. You’re the last one.”
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
“I don’t think so.”
Dodger stopped what he was doing and turned around to face Boon. “Mr. Torque?”
Boon leaned to one side, looking around Dodger to the still form of Torque propped against the rocks. “Oh, him? Yeah I guess we should take him with us.” Boon grabbed Torque by the foot, lifting the dangling clockwork man out of the hole, tossing him to the ground somewhere above.
“Washington Boon!” Lelanea shouted. “You be careful with him!”
“Why?” Boon shouted in return. “It’s not like he can feel anything. Trust me, I was in there.”
“Hey now,” Dodger scolded. “What has gotten into you?”
“What? Why are you guys being so sensitive? He’s just a hunk of junk.”
Dodger stared quietly at the machine. “Boon, what is the square root of twenty five thousand, six hundred and ninety eight?”
“One hundred and sixty point three zero five nine five seven four six nine. But I thought you would already know that since you seem to know everything.” A giant metal hand covered the open slot of PAUL’s face that made up his mouth.
Dodger was just as shocked.
“Dodger?” Boon whispered from behind the metal hand. “How did I know that?”
“I’m not sure,” Dodger said.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Are you guys coming up or not?” Lelanea yelled over Dodger’s explanation.
Dodger looked up the open shaft, then back to Boon. “Listen, let’s keep this between us for now, all right? You don’t tell Miss Lelanea or Ched or even the doc. I’ll handle it when the time is right. Understand?”
Boon nodded as best the machine would allow.
“And for Pete’s sake,” Dodger said. “Keep that metal mouth of yours shut for now. Got it?”
The machine nodded again.
“Good,” Dodger said. “Now, get us out of here.”
Boon lifted Dodger to ground level, then took a few moments to enlarge the hole for himself. He clambered out of this larger gap with an impressive hoist. Now that they were out of the cavern, Dodger could truly appreciate the majesty of the machine, as well as the massive bulk of it. A sudden satisfaction overcame him as well. With PAUL on their side, the odds tipped to their favor in a humongous way. After so much strife and turmoil, they were finally one step ahead of that awful mutt.
“What took you so long?” Lelanea said. “Down there whispering like a bunch of little boys.”
“How’s Benton?” Dodger said, ignoring her curiosity.
This news perked up the mayor. The old man raised his head, hope touching his tired eyes. “He’ll live?”
“Yes. The bullet’s lodged in his shoulder, but it doesn’t appear to have struck anything major.”
“Thank God,” White said. He scrambled to his nephew’s side to cradle the young man in his arms once more. “I’m so sorry, Gerald. I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”
“How long will he be out?” Marlow said.
“A few hours, at the most,” Lelanea said. “He will need to have that bullet removed, or it will get infected. But I can’t do it here.” She moved toward the injured undertaker. “Let me take a look at your arm.”
Marlow limped back a bit, shying from her outstretched hands. “No thank you, ma’am. I can manage. It’s just a flesh wound.”
Lelanea smiled to hide her obvious confusion. “Oh, all right then.”
“If you can get us back to the town in your vehicle, I’ll get that power supply for you, and you can be on your way.”
“With the right equipment, I can get that bullet out of his shoulder easily-”
“We can manage.”
Dodger wasn’t certain if the suddenly cold attitude was because the old man was weary of the whole game, or if he was just leery of Lelanea in particular. “Tell you what, why don’t you and I run these folks back to town in the Rhino, and Boon can take Torque and meet us back at the line?”
“I suppose that will be acceptable,” Lelanea said. “Boon? Do you mind carrying him back?”
Boon looked to Dodger as if seeking permission.
The machine nodded in turn.
Lelanea glanced between the machine and the man, raising her eyebrows in suspicion. “All right then. I suppose we should head out. Be gentle with him, Boon.”
“I will,” Boon said. After he grabbed up Torque—tenderly this time—Boon took off in a moderate lope, away from the caverns and toward the line miles off to the south. The ground shook with each heavy mechanical step, sending sleeping birds scattering from distant trees.
The vibrations ran up Dodger’s spine for a good few minutes after Boon was gone.
“Let’s get this over with,” Lelanea said, and took off for the Rhino.
“Again,” Marlow said, “she is an unusual young woman.”
“You have no idea,” Dodger said.
Getting the Mayor into the Rhino was simple, considering the man was too exhausted to fight, as well as pleasantly distracted by the fact that he hadn’t killed his nephew. Marlow asked a ton of questions about the Rhino—how she worked, what she was made of, how hard was it to pedal—to which Dodger did his best to answer without giving away too much of the doc’s secrets. Lelanea remained quiet, almost distracted. Dodger couldn’t fault her. He was worried about Boon and Torque too, but they couldn’t do anything about it until they returned to the line.
The town of Jubilee was once again barren of folks. Every window was shuttered, every door shut tight.
“Friendly bunch of folks you got here,” Dodger said as he parked the Rhino.
“They are afraid of you,” Marlow said as he helped White out of the vehicle. “You stood up to the man that owns them. That makes you worth fearing.”
“They could at least offer a hand.” Dodger lifted Benton from the backseat. “Where should I take him?”
“To my parlor,” Marlow said. “I can work on him there.”
“Are you certain you don’t want me to look at his shoulder?” Lelanea asked.
“I wouldn’t want to waste your time anymore than we already have. I can manage it. I have some experience with such things.” Marlow nodded to Dodger. “Follow me.”
“Wait here,” Dodger said. “Watch the Rhino. I don’t think they’ll give you any trouble.”
Lelanea pursed her lips at him as she slid across the seat, settling in behind the steering wheel.
With White in tow, Marlow lead Dodger into the funeral parlor. The place was typical of its profession, clean and understated with a modest selection of coffins, a fainting couch and a quietly respectful atmosphere. Dodger detected subtle signs of day to day life, as Marlow also lived in his place of business.
“Put him down on the couch,” Marlow said. He helped White onto a wooden chair by the door.
Dodger slowly laid the innkeeper onto the couch, then stepped away to massage the small of his back. “My back is gonna bitch about this for weeks.”
“Certainly that was nothing for a strapping young man like you?”
“I ain’t quite as young as I used to be.”
“None of us are.” Marlow opened a cupboard at the back of the room, and slid a parcel free from the depths of the cubbyhole. “I think this is what you’re after.” He passed it off to Dodger with an almost unwarranted reverence.
“Thanks. The doc sure will be glad to see this again.”
“I understand.” Marlow eyed Dodger with a cautious smirk. “You were after that all along, weren’t you?”
“I may be a humble servant of the dead, son, but I know something dangerous when I see it. That’s the reason I squirreled it away instead of just dumping it like Herbert wanted. He thought that machine was dangerous. I think the power source has more potential to become dangerous. In the wrong hands, of course.”
Dodger eyed the older man just as cautiously. “Has anyone else been around asking about PAUL lately?”
“Perhaps.” Marlow winked.
“Thankfully not everyone is as nosey as you folks,” White said. “They heard tale that PAUL was buried under ten tons of rock, and they believed it and went away.”
Stunned into silence, Dodger couldn’t help but wonder how big a bullet the whole world just dodged.
“I supposed you should be off then,” Marlow said.
“I reckon so,” Dodger said. He held out his hand. “Thanks again.”
“No, thank you.” Marlow shook Dodger’s hand.
“I’m sorry we caused so much trouble.”
“I’m sorry our mayor kidnapped you and tried to kill your manservant.”
Dodger tipped his forefinger to his brow. “Thanks again.” He moseyed back out to the Rhino, and climbed into the passenger seat.
Lelanea shifted the Rhino into gear and headed back to the line.