In which Dodger follows the leader
Feng winced at the early afternoon sunshine as he stepped down from the cab. In the full light of the sun, Feng’s recent illness became grossly apparent. The older man seemed, for once, his age. Gone was the hearty middle aged Chinaman that Dodger had come to know, replaced by an ancient elder that looked frail enough to snap in two with the slightest tumble or bump. His face was wrinkled and liver spotted with wispy bits of gray hair sprouting here and there from the odd wart or two. Dodger’s instincts kicked in, and he reached forward to offer an arm of support but the Celestial waved away the help and instead leaned against his staff. As for the staff, Dodger was duly impressed—a beautiful wooden affair covered in delicate carved reliefs, bright red ribbons, tiny jingling bells, and stood a clean three feet taller than the aged man. It was something that belonged in a museum as opposed to serving as a walking stick.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” the doc said.
“What?” Feng said. “I’m just an old man going for a walk. Nothing unusual about that.” He leaned on the staff, huffing as he shuffled along.
“I can find what we need with the CROSS.”
“Then you’ll have to explain to everyone what you’re doing. You forget not everyone is agreeable to such technology, Hieronymus. No need to freak them out when I can discover the same thing just by walking around.” He stopped a few feet from the train and groaned. “Ugh. I forgot what a pain it was to be old. Everything hurts. How can everything hurt so much?”
“I told you this was a bad idea.”
“Put a sock in it, Jupiter.”
The doc balled his fists and pursed his lips in frustration.
It took everything Dodger had not to laugh aloud at their exchange.
“I suppose you think this is funny?” the doc said, catching Dodger’s smile.
“No, sir,” Dodger said. “But I reckon Mr. Feng knows what he’s doing.”
“Damn straight I do,” Feng said. He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes, breathing deep as he turned his face to the sun. Opening his eyes he nodded to the tents at the back of the circus and said, “This way.”
They walked toward the tents, nodding and greeting folks as they went. Most of the crew were gathered at the far end of the camp, greeting the freshly returned elephant and riders. Those that lingered among the tents were pleased to meet the Celestial, and regarded him with the appropriate amount of respect due a man his age.
“I also forgot how nice it was to be old,” Feng said. “People respect you when you look like you’re about to croak.”
“I don’t care if you’re about to moo,” the doc said. “You should get back to the line right now. As your physician, I command it.”
Feng closed his eyes again and leaned into his staff. He inhaled, then gave a jerking jolt that nearly knocked him off of his feet.
“Feng?” the doc said, dropping the fussy tone in favor of genuine worry. “Are you all right, my friend?”
Opening his eyes again, Feng smiled. “Oh yeah, now we are cooking with gas. This way.” He stood a little taller, walked a little straighter, and didn’t seem to need the support of his staff quite as much.
“Where are we going?” Dodger said as he fell in line behind the pair.
“Feng seems to think he can locate our time flux,” the doc said.
“I can sense it,” Feng said. “It’s near here.” He headed to the tents at the farthest end of the camp.
When Bigby gave them the grand tour earlier that morning, he explained that the personnel tended to separate in their downtime, with the performers favoring one side of the encampment and the work hands grouping to the opposite. Dodger had originally suspected that one of the performers might have the time manipulating device. That perhaps they had ran across it by accident, and employed it somehow in their act. But no, Feng was headed to the east end of the camp, the section that held the hired help.
“It’s here,” the old man said. “I can feel it.”
Only he wasn’t so much an old many anymore. Feng had lost the limp, as well as the stoop. He stood high full height and strode confidently as he drew closer and closer to whatever it was that refreshed him. Without warning, Feng stopped just outside one of the larger tents and pointed with his staff.
“In there,” Feng said.
“Are you certain?” the doc said.
“He sure looks certain,” Dodger said. Dodger rapped on one of the tent’s support poles. “Excuse me? Is anyone home?”
“Hang on!” someone shouted.
There rose a series of sounds, shuffling and grunting, as if the owner of the voice were rushing about the place. Perhaps putting it in order for the sudden visitors?
“Seems we interrupted something,” the doc said.
“I’ll bet,” Feng said. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Come on! We know you’re in there!”
“Feng,” the doc scolded. “Where are your manners?”
“I left them in my other robe.” He waggled his staff at the tent flap. “Come on out!”
With that, a young man pushed aside the flap and stepped out into the shadow of the tent. He stood a bit taller than the doc, though not by much, and bore a slight build. His hair hung in a shaggy blond mop around his face, nearly concealing his fair blue eyes. Dodger reckoned the kid couldn’t have been a day over sixteen. He also looked scared out of his wits, and no wonder with Feng shouting up a storm. Dodger remembered seeing the young man during Bigby’s tour, but couldn’t place the kid’s name, or his occupation within the circus.
“Can I help you?” the young man said in a raspy growl.
Dodger grinned at the way the kid dug down for a deeper tone, no doubt trying to appear far older than his looks suggested.
“Yes,” Feng said. “You can.” Feng drew closer and took a deep breath, as if sniffing the kid. He grinned. “What time are you from?”
The young man flicked his gaze away from Feng, dithering a moment before he said, “I, um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“See?” the doc said. “He doesn’t have any idea what you’re going on about, old bean. You might as well ask him how to get to the moon for all the good it will do. Now, let’s get back to my idea.”
“He knows,” Dodger said before Feng could answer. “He has it and he knows.”
And Dodger knew this to be true. It was in the way the kid hesitated just before he disavowed any knowledge. The way he turned away from Feng, as if he couldn’t look another man in the eye while telling a lie. It was in the way he trembled, ever so slightly, under the accusing glare of the three men.
“Look kid,” Feng said. “I am several hundred years before and after your time, so forgive me if I don’t have the patience polite society requires of me here and now. I am only going to ask this once more. And you will answer me if you know what is good for you. What. Time. Are. You. From?”
The tremble became a full blown shake as the kid’s knees all but knocked in fright.
“He’s not answering,” Feng said. “Why isn’t he answering?”
“Why should he?” the doc said. “I wouldn’t answer such a rude old man either. Let’s start with something simpler. What is your name, young man?”
Instead of answering, the kid’s eyes rolled to whites and he slumped to the dirt. He then set to shaking all over as if someone set a live wire to his skin. His arms and legs jumped and hopped. A thin stream of white froth poured from the corner of his mouth.
“He’s seizing,” the doc said as he leapt to the kid’s aid. He slipped out of his jacket and dropped to his knees at the young man’s side. “It’s all right, young man. Here we go.” The doc rolled up his coat and placed it under the young man’s head, tipping the kid’s face to one side. “Just try to relax. It will be over soon.”
The white fluid gushed from the lad’s lips and pooled beside of his head.
“Aw geesh,” Feng said. “I hope it wasn’t something I said.”
“Not likely,” the doc said. “It is probably a congenital issue.”
“What can I do to help?” Dodger said.
“Just give him some space,” the doc said as he sat back on his heels. “His body will do what comes naturally. Perhaps you should go and fetch Monsieur Bigby? We need to know more about this young man.”
The kid kicked and writhed in the dirt for what seemed like a very long time. Dodger didn’t have much experience with seizures, and found himself captivated by the sight of it. As well as a little intimidated. He wanted to help, yet had never felt so helpless.
“He will be fine,” the doc said. “Go. Fetch the Frenchman.”
Dodger tore his gaze from the lad and ran off to find Bigby. After asking around a bit, he ran into Duncan, who led Dodger to the boss man’s main office. Dodger explained the situation to both of them and returned to the young man’s tent with Bigby and Duncan in tow. A crowd had formed now, with the other employees watching on in worry. Whatever fit had come over the kid was finished, leaving him in a deep and quiet sleep.
“Mon Dieu,” Bigby said. “What has happened to Henry?” He lowered to the lad’s side.
“Henry is it?” the doc said. “Well, I’m afraid Henry has had a bit of a seizure. Not to worry. These things happen. He should be right as rain in no time. Mr. Dodger, Mr. Williams, will you help me get him inside?”
Gerald shoved through the crowd and stepped forward. “I’ll do it.” He reached down to lift the lad into his strong arms.
“No, thank you,” the doc said, gently pushing the strong man back into the gathered crowd. “I would like for Dodger and James to assist me. This is a delicate, medical matter. I am sure you understand.” The doc glared at Dodger. “Mr. Dodger, if you please.”
Dodger didn’t know what the doc was on about, but he did as asked. “Grab his feet, James.”
Duncan joined Dodger in stooping to lift the sleeping lad.
The kid was small, much smaller than Dodger at first suspected. He barely weighed anything at all, but Dodger huffed with the shared burden all the same, wondering why the doc refused to let the strong man carry the kid instead.
“Go back to your work,” the doc said to the crowd. “We will take care of Henry. I know you are worried for your friend, but he will be just fine. I assure you. Now, go. Go on. Shew.” The doc waved the crowd away, as if they were lingering spectators and not worried companions.
“Where do you want him?” Dodger said.
“Inside the tent, if you please. Mr. Bigby, will you accompany us. We need to have a little talk.”
“Bien sûr,” Bigby said and followed them inside.
The tent hosted a handful of cots and trunks, probably a communal sleeping space for those without private quarters. A lit lamp sat atop a tall trunk in the corner, casting a soft glow over the makeshift room.
“Over here,” Bigby said, motioning Dodger and Duncan toward what he assumed was the young man’s cot.
Dodger laid the kid down, gingerly, making sure not to bump the poor lad’s head. After Duncan lowered his half as well, Dodger stepped back and stretched, relishing the pops and cracks that sounded from his aching back. He was getting far too old to lug around passed out folks.
Feng ignored the others, and set to rooting about in the kid’s stuff; opening sacks, rifling through boxes, and looking under everything he could lift. Bigby’s concern for his employee consumed his attention, as he all but ignored Feng’s curious behavior. Dodger sort of knew what Feng was up to, yet still wondered if just asking Henry again when he woke up wouldn’t be more polite than ransacking the place.
The doc sat on the edge of the cot and brushed aside the kid’s long hair. Under the burning lantern, the lad’s features appeared softer, more delicate. Dodger would venture to say the kid was a touch on the pretty side, a sore sight to be for someone trying to make it in the wilds of the new frontier.
The professor pulled the lad’s eyes open, one at a time, checking each pupil as they reacted to the low light. “Seems not to have suffered any permanent damage. Just a bit of a blow to the ego, I imagine. Tell me, Monsieur, how long has poor Henry suffered from seizures?”
Bigby lifted his hands in confusion. “I do not know. He only joined my troupe a few weeks ago, and never said anything about this affliction of his.”
“Ah, probably a recent development then. I’ll wager it has something to do with the device.”
“What device?” Duncan said.
“This one,” Feng said, standing from his crouch at the foot of the cot, where he had been going through a large trunk. He held a plain wooden box about a foot across, held tightly closed by a huge padlock the likes of which Dodger had never seen before.