Into the Fray
In which Dodger joins the battle
Through the agony of his impending death, Dodger gaped in amazement as Feng stirred. The man’s head flopped at an odd angle to his body, yet that didn’t stop him from sitting up. Feng grabbed his own head by the cheeks and twisted it, setting it back into place. He lolled his head around on his neck, as if trying it out for position, then got to his feet.
The Celestial glanced around, rubbing his hands. “That was a close call—whoa!”
Dodger went slack, closing his eyes just as Feng raised his hands. A crack sounded and with it a painful jolt raced through Dodger’s body, setting every muscle, every hair, every nerve on end. Grinder released his grip on Dodger’s throat, allowing him to slip to the floor. Dodger seized, coughing and gagging as he tried to get air back into his nearly ashen lungs. Another crack sounded, followed by a sizzle and pop. Dodger squinted up at the mechanical man. Grinder swayed on his feet, smoke pouring out of his ears. He tipped backward and crashed to the wooden floor.
Feng rushed to Dodger’s side, helping him to his feet once more. “Aw geesh. If I had known the password didn’t really work I would’ve never-”
Dodger yanked his arm out of Feng’s hold, even though he could barely stand on his own. “Get away from me!”
The Celestial held up his hands and backed off of Dodger. “Okay. All right. Calm down.”
“Calm down? I saw you die. That maniac broke your neck. You were dead.”
“What? That? It was nothing. Just a scratch.”
“No.” He raised a trembling finger to Grinder. “That thing killed you. I heard your neck snap.”
Feng waved away Dodger’s concern. “Look, Dodger, a man can’t make it through a thousand years without having his neck broke every once in a while.”
Dodger glared at Feng in disbelief. “What? What kind of excuse is that?”
“Then how about this? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than you've even dreamed of in your philosophy.”
A smiled came to Dodger’s lips. “That ever I was born to set it right, huh?”
The Celestial smiled in return. “You got it.”
Dodger shook his head. “I’ve been asking the wrong question this whole time. Not who are you. What are you?”
Feng smiled. “I’m your friend.”
“I guess I should be glad of that.” Dodger glanced down to the still smoking form of Grinder. “Because I sure would hate to be your enemy.”
“Yeah, I should’ve done that to begin with. Again, sorry about that.” Feng offered his arm to Dodger. “Shall we?”
Dodger took up his offered arm. Feng pushed through the last door, limping Dodger onto the breezeway that led to the boarding platform. The sounds of battle out here were nearly deafening without the dampening effects of the airship in place. From the ground beneath them came cries and shouts and gunfire and all manner of explosions.
It then dawned on Dodger that they were about to lower themselves into the heat of the battle.
“There’s our ride,” Feng said, motioning to the platform Dodger rode up on only a few days before.
Weeks, he reminded himself. Weeks before. He let Feng limp him toward the platform where a wheelbarrow waited. A pair of long, muscular legs dangled from the side of the wheelbarrow. Bare legs.
“Is that?” Dodger said, unable to ask the question.
“A wheelbarrow?” Feng said. “It sure is, and I’m lucky to have found it. That man weighs a zillion tons.”
That wasn’t what Dodger was asking, but close enough of an answer, he supposed.
As Feng limped Dodger to the platform, the full sight of Washington Jeremiah Boon came into view. Thankfully, a sheet lay wrapped around the midsection of the otherwise naked man. Boon’s beard was far thicker than Dodger’s facial hair. From the midst of the blond beard he smiled serenely in his half sleep, oblivious to the battle raging on beneath him. In fact, he looked good for a man who had been dead for the last six months. Good and … blue? Dodger narrowed his eyes at the tint of Boon’s skin.
“Why is he blue?” Dodger said.
“I am going to guess it’s cryogenics,” Feng said.
“Rex kept Boon alive by suspending him in a kind of frozen state. It’s actually really clever of the mutt. Though I can’t imagine why he kept Boon alive for so long.”
“Leverage. He craves the upper hand and he thought keeping Boon around gave it to him.”
“It did, in a way. Would you have come aboard if he didn’t have Boon?”
Dodger shuffled onto the platform, smiling down at Boon. “I can’t wait to see Lelanea’s face.”
“Lelanea? Imagine how the doc is gonna freak out.”
Dodger stood again and leaned back, giving Feng some room to board the small platform. With the wheelbarrow and two full grown men, it was a tight fit. Feng unlatched the platform and nodded to Dodger.
“Are you ready?” he said.
Dodger nodded in return. “As I’ll ever be.”
Feng flipped the switch on the platform, sending the three of them downward. The ride wasn’t as smooth as he remembered, nor as slow. Feng must’ve had the thing set in high gear, for they all but barreled toward the ground. They gathered speed as they descended, the cables giving off a painful whine and rising smoke as the platform grew closer to the ground. Dodger clutched the rail with one hand, and the edge of the wheelbarrow with the other. He looked out across the landscape, marveling at the bird’s eye view of the battlefield.
Tents and makeshift structures lay to the south of the airship, all curved around a fairly good sized hole in the ground. To one side of this gaping hole sat various bits and bobs of glinting metal machinery—Tyler Crank’s payment. Dodger grinned thinking how it must’ve grated the man to leave all of that glorious weaponry behind as he fled like a true coward. Pushing this thought aside, Dodger turned his attention to the battlefield lying north of the airship. Bulldog soldiers, hundreds and hundreds of them lined up in neat formations across the dry dirt. They fought in nearly perfect rows, rarely breaking their rank and file arrangement. Further north sat the Sleipnir, shining like a beacon in the bright sunshine. Dodger peered over the railing, into the fight below and could just make out a huge wolf tearing through the ranks on one side. Baby the elephant stampeded in wide circles, stomping a good many bulldogs to sloppy goop. Duncan towered over the others, leading his circus folk in an all out attack.
The sight of the raging war did something to Dodger. His aches and pains were forgotten in the face of combat. His heart set to racing and his adrenalin kicked in full force. He all but drooled for the chance to get out there and get his licks in. It wasn’t that he enjoyed killing, no. He was just so damned good at it, and full on war was one of the few times he could lay down his conscious and let his highly trained talents take him body and soul.
War might’ve been Hell, but the fires of Hades never felt so good.
“Hang on!” Feng cried over the whine of the cables. “We’re going in hard!”
“No kidding!” Dodger yelled.
The base of the platform struck the ground with a heavy thud, though this noise was consumed by the shouts and cries of a full on battle. Dodger struggled to keep his balance, but Feng didn’t waste a moment. He unlatched the railing and tossed it to one side, then grabbed the wheelbarrow with both hands, yanking it from the platform onto the ground.
“Come on!” he shouted.
“Where are we going?” Dodger said.
“Back to the line. Torque was supposed to meet us. Something must be wrong.”
Dodger fell in behind Feng, searching the dusty battlefield for any sign of the mechanical man. He spotted a walking machine, but not the one he was looking for. PAUL strode across the thriving field of battle, with Boon guiding the mechanical shell, punching and tearing his way toward a monster as nearly as large as he. No doubt, one of Rex’s dreadful homunculi.
Sarah’s description, while terrible, hardly did the beast justice. It crouched to an impressive height of at least eight feet—God only knew how tall it really was. Its head resembled a dog, complete with triangular nose, elongated snout and slathering fangs. The thing bore six legs, two strong back legs and four grasping front legs, bringing a new meaning to the idea of forepaws. Yet even worse than this, in some twisted insanity, it also sported a pair of tentacles. They sprung from between its upper most shoulder blades, writhing and whipping about its monstrous form.
Boon grabbed the monster by the throat, punched it hard, then tossed it into the line of bulldogs, knocking a dozen of the enemy off of their feet. The ghost driven machine went after his large prey, snatched it up and pummeled it once more. Before Dodger could ask Feng how many more of those beasts were in the fight, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. Dodger grabbed the owner by the wrist and flipped him overhead, flinging the man flat on his back where Dodger leaned against the tender breastbone with one knee.
“Dodger?” Thaddeus said.
“Thad?” Dodger said. He let the poor dog soldier out from under his grip. “What are you doing here?”
“Fighting back!” Thad cried, and ran off to rejoin the battle.
“You can talk later,” Feng said. “We need to find Torque.
“Mr. Dodger!” Torque shouted. “This way!”
Dodger whipped about to find Torque standing in the front seat of the Rhino. Grabbing Feng’s arm, Dodger said, “Over there.”
Feng followed Dodger’s lead, pushing the wheelbarrow across the battlefield toward the waiting Rhino. Dodging bullets and blows, the pair managed by all that was holy to make it in one piece. Dodger helped Feng lift Boon’s blue body from the wheelbarrow into the backseat of the Rhino. Feng tried to push Dodger into the seat beside Torque, but Dodger slid out of Feng’s reach.
“Get them back to the line!” Dodger shouted. “I’m staying here.”
“You need to go back with me,” Feng said. “You’re too weak to fight.”
Dodger laughed aloud. “I’ve never felt better!” And it was true. He hadn’t felt so alive in years.
“Is this really the time for a lover’s tiff?” Torque asked.
“I’m going to argue with you about this,” Feng said.
“Good,” Dodger said. “Then leave. Get him back. Go!”
Feng pursed his lips a moment, then gave a frustrated huff just under the combat. “Don’t make me make you!”
Dodger squared his shoulders. “I’d like to see you try!”
(chapter to be continued)