Monday, July 21, 2014

V11:Chapter One-Staying on Track

Volume Eleven
Elephant in the Doom

Chapter One

Staying on Track
In which Dodger lays down the law

Much to Dodger’s dismay, the line didn’t get back into motion until early the following morning. Turned out PAUL’s storage space wasn’t quite as ready as it looked. It took a bit of time to get the machine, as well as the spirit inside of it, situated enough for travel. Boon helped as best he could with lifting and welding, but the more delicate work required smaller, steadier hands—a fact that seemed to frustrate the ghost to no end. Dodger offered his services, but the doc insisted both Lelanea and Dodger get some much needed rest after their sordid adventure in the town of Jubilee.

Dodger didn’t argue the point; partially because he figured the man knew what was best, being a doctor and all, but mostly because Dodger was so dog tired. The usually spunky and independent Lelanea didn’t argue with her uncle either, but for very different reasons. After her initial conversation with her beau upon returning to the line, she retired to her quarters and didn’t emerge again for a couple of hours. Dodger fancied he heard a bit of weeping and even some arguing rising from her end of the cab, but he tried his best to stay out of whatever drama was brewing. As it was, he slept fitfully with worry on his heart for his friends.

No, he worried for his family.

Dodger woke the next morning to a gentle but persistent rapping on his cabin door.

“Mr. Dodger?” Torque said.

“Yeah,” Dodger groaned. “Give me a minute.” He rolled out of his bunk and threw on a shirt, wondering what sort of emergency would bring Torque so politely knocking. Dodger slid the door open and stared bleary eyed into the hallway at the mechanical man. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?” Torque said. “Nothing is wrong. Everything is right. So very, very right. Love makes things right, you know. Love. Love for Lelanea.” Some hidden clockwork spun and whistled in a faux sigh. “Lelanea. Isn’t that a beautiful name?”

Dodger pinched the bridge of his nose. Not this again. “Look, Torque, I appreciate your new found affections, but please tell me you didn’t wake me up just to remind me you’re in love with her.”

“I did, but not just. I also brought you this.” Torque turned and lifted a tray from a trolley to his right. He all but shoved it at Dodger, as some of that old attitude seemed to linger in the metal man, somewhere.

Dodger stared down at the dome covered tray. “What is that?”

“That,” Mr. Torque said, pausing to lift the cover, “is breakfast.”

The smell of eggs rose from the plate, and for a golden moment Dodger hoped against hope that Feng was once more up and about. That the old Celestial had beaten whatever kept him down for so long. That the TAP was functional and the threat of Rex destroying all space and time had finally passed. But the contents on the tray spoke of a different truth.

Instead of a fantastic display of delicious delights, the tray held a passable breakfast of cold eggs, tepid coffee and soggy toast.

Dodger’s stomach turned as he glared at the meal.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Torque said.

“Not anymore,” Dodger said before he caught himself. “I mean of course, thanks.” He sat the tray to one side and tried to usher the butler from his room.

“I attempted to give my love her tray, but she won’t answer her door.”

“I’m sure she’s just overslept. Now move along.”

“Then I shall wake her with a beautiful melody.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Dodger shoved the mechanical man toward the door.

Torque caught the doorframe and hung on tight. “What would you do? I need your advice, Mr. Dodger. Please, tell me how to woo my lady love.”

“You can start by letting me get dressed.” Dodger pushed on the deadweight of metal until it finally relented and moved into the hallway.

“Good then,” Torque said as he grabbed the trolley handle. “You get ready and I’ll wait.”

“Wait in the meeting cab.”

“I don’t mind waiting-”

“In the meeting cab,” Dodger growled. “Now!”

Torque’s mustache quivered at the loud command. “Yes, sir.” With that, he scurried off, pushing the trolley into the next cab.

“And get the rest of the crew together!” Dodger shouted after him. “We need to talk about things!”

Dodger slid the door closed and wrinkled his nose at the tray of cold food. Everyone missed Feng’s cooking, but at least the overly cheery mechanical man was trying to help out for once. This strange fact twisted Dodger’s stomach—the sudden and startling change in Mr. Torque’s personality. Before their visit to Jubilee, the clockwork servant couldn’t be bothered to give anyone the time of day, much less prepare a meal for his fleshy companions. But now… now the machine seemed more man than ever.

As if to equalize this change, Boon had dipped in the opposite extreme, growing exceedingly detached and refusing to leave the PAUL. It was as if the spirit has become addicted to the tactile abilities the mechanism lent him, and preferred being cooped up in the cargo cab as opposed to the freedom of his ethereal movement outside of the machine. Dodger wanted to believe it was just the burden of the task at hand weighing on the spirit, but he knew better. More than just a bullet had passed between the ghost and the clockwork man. Something that left Torque obsessed with Lelanea while Boon had lost all interest in her.

Dodger contemplated this as he shoveled the congealed eggs into his mouth, then dressed for the morning meet up.

Torque took the helm, allowing Ched to attend the meeting. Lelanea showed up as well, though she was obviously distracted with worry. The doc sat at his desk, looking as bone tired as Dodger felt. Sarah yawned and rubbed at her face. Everyone stared at Dodger through weary eyes, each one worn slap out with either grief or lack of sleep, or both. The constant travel, coupled with the recent events, had everyone at the end of their tether, including Dodger. Even Ched seemed exhausted for a not-dead man who didn’t really need sleep. If they kept up this pace, Feng wouldn’t be the only one down for the count.

“We have about a week left,” Dodger said as he leaned back against the window. “According to Ched we can make it to Rex’s compound in less than two days, if we travel nonstop.”

Ched nodded, slow and languid.

“Might I make a suggestion?” the doc said, raising his hand like a schoolboy.

Dodger huffed in frustration. “Sir, you ain’t gotta ask to speak. You’re in charge here.”

“Oh, yes, well, in that case, I think it might be best if we take full advantage of the seven days we have left.”

“In what way?” Lelanea said.

“I think we should stop off and take a breather,” the doc said. “Get a chance to stretch our legs, fill up on supplies, maybe get a good night’s sleep in a proper bed? We have been going at it nonstop, and while I enjoy traveling a great deal, especially in my own creation, I think a bit of a layover would do us all some good.”

“You make it shound like a vacashun,” Ched said.

“Perhaps that is precisely what we need?” The doc furrowed his brow, as if confused by his own words.

“Sir,” Dodger said. “I would like nothing more than to take a break from all of this, but we both know that can’t happen. Between that maniac holding little Rodger and those dog men hostage, and Feng’s poor health, we need to finish this as quickly as possible.”

“I realize that,” the doc said. “But, well, just look at my crew, Mr. Dodger. They can’t go on like this.”

“I know, sir,” Dodger said. “But what choice do we have? Rex may have gave us two weeks before he starts killing off those men, but that don’t mean he’ll hold to it. And there is no telling what he will do to that poor kid.”

“My brother’s gonna be all right,” Sarah said. “Won’t he?”

“I sure hope so,” Dodger said.

“I see your point,” the doc said and hung his head with a heavy sigh. “Well then, Mr. Dodger, what path do you recommend?”

Dodger pointed to a thin line he had sketched across a map that hung on the back wall of the meeting cab. “Rex’s compound is a few hundred miles into California, but if we follow these existing rail systems it should be a fairly clear shot. There might be a few gorges and mountains on the way, but thankfully the Pacific Railroad has kindly cleared a path for us. From what Ched explained to me, getting through those tunnels and over those bridges won’t be an issue.”

“How are we gonna get through another train’s tunnels?” Sarah said.

“Rather simply, I should think,” the doc said.

Sarah stared at the man, blinking as she awaited an explanation.

An explanation Dodger had gotten that morning from the driver, but Sarah wouldn’t get without asking.

“Doc?” Dodger said. “You wanna try something more detailed? Or should I?”

“More detail?” the doc said. He puffed up his cheeks and exhaled slowly. “The train can borrow another track, if needed.”

“How?” Sarah said.

“We can disengage her current track system, store them over the top of the line, and mount her wheels to an existing rail, thus borrowing them for as long as needed. Then we reverse the process so she can run on her own again. There is a measure of difficulty involved but in the end it is a fairly simple process.”

“A meashure?” Ched said. He huffed. “It’sh damned hard work, ish what. It takesh twish ash long to hop the railsh as it doesh to travel the length of it.”

“It’s time we can spare,” Dodger said, “if we keep moving.”

Sarah scrunched up her nose in confusion. “I still don’t think I get it.”

“Dear, dear,” the doc said. “Well, imagine if you took off your shoes and put them on your head, then you slipped into Mr. Ched’s shoes, and walked around a bit, then took his shoes off and put your shoes back on. That’s what it would be like.”

“Oh,” Sarah said. “But his shoes wouldn’t fit my feet.”

“They would if you could expand your feet to fill them. You see the Sleipnir can shift the pitch of her wheels to reach the required rail widths. Or rather in this case, narrow them. She can fit any rail system from anywhere all over the world.”

“Then why doesn’t your train just ride those rails all of the time? Wouldn’t it be better on her own tracks if she didn’t have to wear them out?”

The doc tapped his bearded chin in thought. “Let me ask you this, if you could hypothetically fit Ched’s shoes, why wouldn’t you just take them away from him and walk around in his shoes all of the time? Why wear out your own shoes when you can use his?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On what hypothemically means.”

“It’s hypothetically,” Dodger said. “And it means supposin’.”

“So, supposing his shoes fit would I just take ‘em?” Sarah said. “Well, I couldn’t just take his shoes because they don’t belong to … oh, I see. It would be like stealing. Those rails belong to someone else.”

“Correct,” the doc said and clapped excitedly. “My, but you are a clever child.”

Sarah smiled.

“She’s a product of Al’s teaching,” Dodger said with some amount of pride, as if he had taught the gal himself.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Lelanea said, “but what makes you think Rex will let us make it straight to his compound? Surely he relies on those same rails for supplies and knows we will use them for our approach. He had laid tricks and traps for us every inch of the way so far. Why should the last few hundred miles be any different?”

“She’sh got a point,” Ched said. “It’sh like the ugly little mutt ish tryin’ to keep ush tied up.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Dodger said. “Which is why I think we should ignore everything between here and our goal. Anything that looks remotely distracting, we will just ride right on by. No stopping. Straight shot.”

“You think we should?” the doc said, patting his hands together in that nervous tic. “What if some poor soul’s life has been fouled by that horrible dog, leaving only us to pick up the pieces?”

Dodger set his jaw at that. “Nothing. No stopping. He keeps setting us up for delays. If we don’t take the bait we won’t fall into the trap.”

“But what if-”

“Doc,” Dodger said over the man, “you have the biggest heart of any man I have ever known, so I know how hard this is going to be for you. But you have to trust me. We have to take charge of this. If we ignore his tricks we will gain the advantage. We have him on size thanks to your idea of getting PAUL. Now we need to get him on speed. He expects us in seven days, not two. Imagine the look on his smug little face when we show up four days early.”

The doc nodded his understanding, but his eyes still glistened with unspent worry.

At the back of the cab, the metal flower of the speaking tube bloomed open. Torque’s voice chirped across the tube, filling the cab with his uncanny cheer. “Mr. Dodger, it seems we are approaching a makeshift campground.”

Dodger shuddered at the lively tone of the clockwork servant. He wasn’t the only one.

“It jusht ishn’t right,” Ched whispered.

“I know what you mean,” the doc said in a low voice. “This morning he called me his master. It was so unlike him, I didn’t know what to say.”

“Can we not dwell on it?” Lelanea snapped.

“Mr. Dodger?” Torque said over the tube. “The encampment?”

“Just go around it,” Dodger said.

“I would like to do nothing more than just that, sir, but I’m afraid we are being hailed now.”


“Yes, sir. Hailed. Greeted. Welcomed. Addressed.”

Dodger rubbed at his aching temples, trying to push back the early signs of a headache. “I know what hailed means, Torque.”

“Of course, sir. What shall I do?”

“Hang on, I’m coming.” Dodger made his way to the door, looking over his shoulder as he said, “You all work out a watch roster between you. Six hours on duty at a turn. That way we don’t all have to stay on alert all of the time for the next two days.”

“What about the folksh hailing ush?” Ched said, getting up to follow Dodger.

“Stay here,” Dodger said, pointing at the not-dead man. “I will deal with this. I’m sure it’s another one of Rex’s tricks. One I don’t plan to fall for it. Are you with me?”

Everyone nodded, including the doc.

“Good,” Dodger said. “Now, make up that roster and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

 Dodger left the crew to their work and made his way to the engine cab. “What’s this about then?”

“Just off the port side, sir,” Torque said without looking away from the helm. “The encampment is about five miles out. We should be on it in under a minute.”

Snatching up a pair of SPECS, Dodger moved in behind the mechanical man. Sure enough, there lay a hazy outline of something off to one side of the train just off in the distance. He lifted the glasses to his eyes and peered over Torque’s shoulder. The SPECS adjusted to bring the blurry form into view. He spotted several large tents pitched in the middle of nowhere, decorated in wild colors and bustling with all manner of folks. It wasn’t unusual for the construction of the rails to attract such nomads, varied entrepreneurs eager to feed, clothe and satisfy the rail worker’s every desire, while emptying his wallet. Sometimes these collections of tents turned into proper towns. Sometimes they faded into the dust they rested on.

In the middle of these tents there stood an enormous form, at least ten feet tall, maybe more, waving a large white flag at the train.

A form Dodger didn’t expect, but was delighted to find. He laughed aloud at the sight, then shouted, “Torque!”

“Yes?” Torque said.

“Slow her on down and as soon as you’re out a quarter mile bring us to a full stop.”

“Yes, sir.” Torque complied, slowing the line down.

“What about not shtoppin’?” Ched said.

Dodger turned about to find Ched and the doc had followed him after all. He hung the SPECS back in their spot with a grin. “I said we wouldn’t stop for strangers. I never said anything about friends.”

“Friendsh?” Ched said. “I don’t know if you’ve notished thish or not, sharge, but we ushually attract the opposhite of friendsh.”

“There’s a ten foot cowboy out there waving us down. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d call that man friend any day.”

“Duncan?” the doc said.

“I sure hope so. Unless y’all know another ten foot cowboy?”

The doc clapped with glee. “It will be so good to see him.”

Dodger couldn’t agree more.

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