In which Dodger learns a thing or two
After compressing the last few days into a few words, the doc turned to Dodger. “And that brings us up to the current issue at hand. Apparently my niece has taken it into her head that she can discover more about the whole elephant affair.”
“She thinks she can track those men,” Dodger said. “I agree with her. It’s best we find out what Rex meant to do with either that machine or the elephant. Meanwhile, we have a little time on our hands while we wait for her to return. No pun intended, Feng.”
Feng twirled a finger in the air. “Pun away.”
It certainly was good to see the cook feeling better. But it left a huge question on Dodger’s mind. “I suppose we should try and uncover what’s got you up and about.”
“I have a theory,” the doc said, “that time is exactly what we have on our hands here.” He grinned, and a gleam sparkled in his tired eyes.
A gleam Dodger hadn’t seen the likes of in quite a number of days. The sight of it left Dodger pleased. It was good to see the doc focused on something besides the death and decay invoked by that demon of a dog. “What are you thinkin’, sir?”
“There is only one thing that affects Feng in such a manner.” The doc stood from his desk and crossed the room to the speaking tubes near the far door. He pulled the mouth piece to him and pushed the button at the base, transforming the tight knit bud into a full metal bloom. “Torque, bring me the Chrono Regulating Output Series Sensor if you please.”
Torque’s voice echoed from the tube. “One CROSS, coming up, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr. Torque.”
“You’re very welcome, sir.”
The tube went silent as the doc returned it to its rightful place.
“Who in Hades was that?” Feng said.
Dodger glanced to Feng and couldn’t help but chuckle at the look of surprise on the elder’s face.
“Awful isn’t it?” the doc said, scrunching up his nose. “I think I rather liked him the other way about. He was willful, but there was a certain pleasure in that struggle. I miss it, I suppose.”
“And I take it Boon has gone in the other direction?” Feng said.
“Yes. Very grumpy.”
“Not so much grumpy as distant,” Dodger said. “He claims he doesn’t have feelings for Lelanea anymore, and he won’t come out of that machine.”
“Can you blame him?” Feng said. “How long has it been since he could feel anything at all, and now the only feelings he had, those faint memories of affection, are vanishing. I’m sure he keeps inside of PAUL because it allows him some measure of connection. It might just be the touch of cold steel, but at least he feels something.”
The doc sighed. “You dwarf me with your wisdom, as always, old friend.”
“Wisdom my rump,” Feng said. “Knowing what is wrong is only half the battle.”
“Knowing is half the battle,” Dodger echoed. “That’s a pretty way of putting it.”
“Yeah?” Feng chuckled. “Well, forget I said it, or the copyright police with come and take us away.”
Dodger shook his head. “I wish I knew what you were saying half the time.”
“Me too,” Feng said, and winked at Dodger.
“Excellent,” the doc said as Torque entered the cab. “You can set it down over there.”
The clockwork man crossed the room and proceeded to lower a metal box on the table nearest the couch. The box was about half a foot long, and sported a small metal nob at one end, about the size of the tip of Dodger’s pinky, as well as a big red button on the top.
“Thank you, Torque,” the doc said. “That will be all.”
“Yes, sir,” Torque said without argument. The metal servant turned and headed for the door.
“Wait,” Feng said, and sat up.
Torque turned about to face the Celestial. “Sir?”
Feng narrowed his bloodshot eyes at the machine. “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.” The old man winced, as if expecting Torque to strike him over such a childish statement.
But no. The clockwork man blinked, clicking his metal eye lids open and closed a few times in confusion. “Is that all, sir?”
“Aren’t you going to argue with me?”
“Do you want me to argue with you? I don’t actually have a mother, though I suppose the professor could be considered my father. If he dresses me funny, as you put it, then it is his to do so sir, considering I serve him. Though I would rather serve my love.” He whistled with a sigh. “I would wear anything for her, sir.”
“Bah,” Feng said and waved Torque away. “I liked you better when you were unlikable.”
“I do apologize, sir. I suppose love does that to a man. Softens them, yes?”
“You’re not a man. You’re a walking dust mop.”
Dodger sniggered at the exchange.
“If you say so, sir,” Torque said. “Have I told you about my love? She is very-”
“Geesh,” Feng said, returning to his repose on the couch. “Get out of here before I get sick all over you.”
“Are you ill, sir?”
“No, but you’re making me.”
“Go back to the lab, Torque,” the doc said. “I’ll call you when I need you.”
“Yes, sir,” the metal man said, and did just that.
“I never thought I would say this,” Feng said just as Torque was leaving, “but I wish he was a little more wiseass and a little less nice.”
Dodger couldn’t agree more with that. “What is the box for, doc?”
“Oh yes,” the doc said. “When I created the TAP, I found I needed something that could measure the essence of time.”
“Isn’t that what a watch is for?” Dodger said.
Feng laughed aloud at that. “Nice one, Dodger. Very clever.”
“Clever,” the doc said. “But incorrect. While a watch can mark the passage of time, it cannot measure the bulk of it. Not in a tangible quantity. It’s rather like the difference between a spyglass and a scale. While the glass reveals the substance, the scale gives you an idea of how much of it is there.”
“I don’t mean to argue,” Dodger said. “But, isn’t time merely a perceptible phenomenon? Isn’t it relative to those observing it and nothing more?”
The doc giggled. “I do enjoy your wit, Mr. Dodger. And yes, that is the commonly held belief. Yet most people forget that time has depth.”
Dodger sat back a bit. “Depth?”
“Of course. How else would Feng be able to traverse back and forth across time if it didn’t have substance?” The doc held his hands apart, about a foot or so. “The space between my hands is empty, yet it is full. You cannot observe the substance between them yet it is there.”
Nope. Dodger wasn’t buying it. Air had substance because it was made of, well, air. But time? What was that made of? “Surely there is a heck of a lot of difference between air and time.”
The doc titled his hands back and forth. “Yes and no. Imagine if-”
“Gentlemen,” Feng said from the couch. He sat up again, slowly, eyeing Dodger and the doc. “I hate to interrupt but is this really the best moment for this?”
“I suppose not,” the doc said. “Mr. Dodger, I am not finished with you. We will return to this discussion at a later date.”
“I look forward to it, sir,” Dodger said.
“Just accept for now that time has substance.”
The doc pointed to the box with the red button. “This is the Chrono Regulating Output Series Sensor, or CROSS. It can tell you how much time an object is taking in or putting out.”
“How can something put out time?” Dodger said.
The doc opened his mouth to explain, then looked to Feng.
The mystic shrugged. “Keep it simple.”
“Simple. Yes. Well, in much the manner that one breathes and exhales air, one draws in and exudes time.”
“We do?” Dodger said.
“Of course. Where do you think all of this time comes from? Thin air?”
“Huh. Imagine that.”
The doc scowled. “Your sarcasm is not lost on me, Mr. Dodger. I know it is hard to believe but everything takes and gives time. Through the simple act of existing we both create and consume time.”
“And that box can measure the input and output of it all?”
“Correct.” The doc picked up the box and pressed the button.
At first, nothing appeared to happen. Dodger waited, holding his breath, almost expecting a great flash of lights or crash of sounds. After a few moments, the button began to blink with a soft light, off and on, off and on. A panel opened just below the flashing light, revealing a series of lines running both vertical and horizontal, across the face of the box.
The box gave a soft ding.
The doc smiled once more, pleased by this. He pulled at the metal nob at the far end of the box, extending a telescopic length of metal tube about six inches long. The doc directed this tube toward his desk and pressed the button again. The red light pulsed quickly as the lines lit with a pale yellow glow in a seemingly random pattern. This pattern clicked and ticked away, until it formed three, even rectangles. The CROSS let out another ding.
“Zero,” the doc said. “As it should be. Almost all inanimate objects register neutral readings. They use and create an equal amount of time, thus achieving a balance.”
Pointing the knob at himself, the professor pressed the button again. Lights flashed, the button blinked, and within moments the CROSS gave its gentle yet indicative ding.
The doc glanced at the reading and frowned. “Forty-five? Well, that’s to be expected, I suppose, considering how old I am. I practically leak time.”
“What does age have to do with it?” Dodger said.
“Everything. Newborns and young folks usually run in the negative, requiring more time than their small bodies can produce. Older people, like me, tend to exude more time than we need.” He pointed the CROSS at Dodger. “Would you like to know how much-”
“No thank you,” Dodger said, holding up his hands and taking a step back. “I’d rather not know, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t blame you,” Feng said. “It’s a burden to know how you fit in the time stream. How much more time your existence requires than those around you. How much time you consume. How much you waste.”
“Now, now,” the doc said. “Stop that whining. You have a right to require more time than the rest of us mere mortals. It takes quite a bit of time to, well, be you.”
“Thanks, Hieronymus. You always make me feel a lad of just a half century.”
“You don’t look a day over one hundred. Now, hold still so I can measure your intake.”
The doc directed the CROSS toward the mystic and pressed the button.
Flashing. Ticking. Ding.
Sucking a quick breath through his teeth, the doc hissed at the reading. “Negative nine hundred and ninety nine.”
“Only nine ninety nine?” Feng laid back against the couch. “I’ll venture a guess that it says that only because your little box doesn’t go to eleven?”
“If by eleven you mean a thousand, no, it doesn’t. But should it, I have no doubt your reading would be much higher. I mean lower. Oh, you know what I mean.”
“I do, old friend. I do.”
“Which means Feng needs more time than he makes?” Dodger said.
“Correct,” the doc said. “He consumes a staggering amount of time in comparison to a man a fraction Feng’s age. Far more than everyone on this train is capable of producing. The TAP alone is the single thing that can supply his unusual needs.”
“Which is why I went down for the count to begin with,” Feng said.
“If Feng is consuming such vast amounts of time,” Dodger said, putting the pieces together, “who or what is providing it now that the TAP is not functioning?”
“It must be someone external to the crew,” the doc said. “I can take all of our readings but I guarantee it isn’t any of us. It could be Boon, I suppose. I never equipped PAUL with a time manipulating device, but perhaps-”
“No,” Feng said. “It can’t be PAUL or Boon. The flux is very recent. I just woke up.”
Dodger thought about this for a moment, and was struck by an unfortunate idea. “Could it be Kitty?”
The doc grunted. “If there is something nearby that can manipulate time in such a manner, it would make sense that she would have it, considering her employer. Though I certainly hope not. That would mean Rex has more knowledge of time manipulation that I had hoped for. There is only one way to find out I suppose. Shall we?”
“If we must,” Dodger said.
He and the doc left Feng to rest and made their way to the back of the line, heading toward the cab where Ched kept Kitty in custody. As they entered the quarters cab, a soft moaning poured out from the guest room. Dodger smirked, knowing what that moan meant.