In which Dodger puts up a fight
Dodger blinked lazily as he stared up at the beatific face of Feng. Somewhere sirens screamed for attention. He tried to raise his head and found he couldn’t. He couldn’t move anything. He was either too weak, or too confined. Probably both.
“You’re finally awake,” Feng said. “It’s about time. I’ve been poking at you forever.”
There came a metallic clink and the shuffle of leather straps as Feng release Dodger’s head and shoulders. The sorcerer moved onto Dodger’s waist and legs, unleashing all of the straps that held Dodger in place. Dodger lolled his head to one side to find two cots beside his, resting side by side by side in the small lab. The other tables and straps were empty, of course. A DREAM machine cap lay discarded on the far table. Wires led back to the main machinery, much like the doc’s own design. Dodger followed a branch of wires to the middle table. The second DREAM machine helmet hung from the corner of the middle cot, where Feng must’ve laid it after removing it from Dodger’s head.
“Where is Rex?” Dodger croaked, his throat as dry as his mood.
“Gone,” Feng said. “The little mongrel must’ve know I was coming. He’s already unplugged and vamoosed. I don’t even feel him aboard. I think he has flown his coup.”
“Tell me about it,”
“What about Grinder?”
“The manservant? He’s at the helm. I think the dog left him on autopilot. He didn’t even acknowledge me when I searched the bridge.”
Dodger had never heard the term autopilot, but he got the idea. An explosion sounded to their left. The ship rocked with the aftershock. A few unsecured beakers slid from a shelf against the wall, shattering as they hit the floor.
Feng held out a hand, helping Dodger sit up. “Slowly now.”
Dodger grimaced at the sound of breaking glass. “Sounds like we don’t have time for slowly. Besides, I’m just fine.” He tried to swing his legs around, only to find they flopped to one side like a pair of beached fish. Helpless, Dodger looked up to Feng.
“Rex had you under heavy sedation,” Feng said. He moved Dodger’s legs over, allowing them to dangle from the side as Dodger sat upright. “If I had known I would’ve had the doc give me something to counteract it before I came up here. Let me see what I can do.” Feng clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. He then held them apart and pressed them to Dodger’s right leg. A warm sensation spread from Feng’s hands all up and down Dodger’s leg. The feeling began to return, accompanied by the traditional pins and needles.
“That’s good,” Dodger said. “Where did Boon go?”
“I sent him back to work,” Feng said. “He was needed elsewhere. Why, am I not good enough to rescue you?”
“I didn’t say that. But, come to think of it, how did you get up here?”
“I caught a ride on the Jenny.”
That wasn’t quite as exciting as the notion that the sorcerer magicked himself aboard. Interesting, but not as exciting. “The doc got it working? I thought he said it would take a few days to-”
Another explosion sounded, rocking the lab again, followed by a distant rat-tat-tat of gunfire.
“What’s going on out there?” Dodger said.
“I thought you’d recognize the sounds of war,” Feng said.
Dodger cut his eyes at Feng.
“You heard me right,” Feng said. He moved onto Dodger’s left leg, massaging the feeling back into the sleeping flesh. “The good guys are attacking Rex’s camp.”
“Good guys?” Dodger said. “Please don’t tell me you mean the crew.”
Feng shrugged, but said nothing. He kept pawing at Dodger’s calf.
“You mean the crew,” Dodger said. “Don’t you? Answer me.”
“You said not to tell you,” Feng said.
Dodger was dumbfounded. “How? Why? What is going on?”
“Look, it’s very simple. You provided the distraction we needed to launch a full-scale attack. Lelanea and Boon are heading up the ground assault with Duncan and the other circus folk acting as infantry. The doc cooked up something special to help ‘em out. The doc also mended the Jenny, Laura dropped me off, and I was supposed to get you, Boon’s body and the kid out of here. Easy as that.” Feng stepped back to take in his handy work. “How do they feel now?”
Dodger waggled his bare toes. “Good. There’s just one thing I don’t get.”
“How did y’all have time to do all of that? I’ve only been gone three days.”
Feng cocked his head at Dodger and gave a soft smile. “Dodger, you’ve been gone for over a week.”
A cold emptiness stole into the pit of Dodger’s stomach. “A week? That’s impossible. I’ve only been under for a few hours at most.”
“How would you know? Remember, time moves very differently when you’re inside of your own mind.”
“Yeah, but a week?”
Feng tapped his own chin. “Almost two.”
Dodger mimicked the motion, rubbing his own chin as well. He was surprised to discover a layer of scruffy beard. Normally he shaved every morning, now he sported at least a few days’ worth of growth.
More than a week, according to Feng.
He looked back to the smaller table, the one that surely held Rex during their sessions.
“Damn,” Dodger said.
“I’d love to let you sit here in wonder,” Feng said, “but we really must be off.”
“Right.” He eased himself onto his feet and wavered a bit, unsteady at first.
“Come on,” Feng said, offering his shoulder.
An echo of a phrase flashed across Dodger’s mind before he could wave the Celestial away.
“We all need a little help every now and then, hon.”
Dodger leaned on Feng, feeling every bit as foolish as he was sure he looked. “I’ll never live this down. Will I?”
“What?” Feng said as he limped Dodger across the room. “A middle-aged man leaning on an ancient sorcerer for support? I’m sure everyone will forget it as soon as they can. I know I will.”
“No, I mean this. All of this. I was supposed to rescue Boon and the kid. I was supposed to defeat Rex. I was hired to help y’all. Not the other way around.”
“You did help us. You got us this far. Without you we would’ve never been coordinated enough to do what we are doing right now.”
“I would like to call bullshit on that one. I am beginning to believe you guys never needed me.”
“Okay, it’s bullshit. You’re deadweight and we all hate you. Is that better? Now stop being so difficult and let’s go.”
They took a few steps, the floor cold under Dodger’s bare feet. “Couldn’t you find my shoes?”
“We’re you always this whiney?”
A sudden thought struck Dodger and he stopped in place. “What about Boon?”
“I told you I sent him back. You sure you’re okay?”
“No, I mean his body.”
“Got it already. He’s at the platform waiting. For you, I might add.”
Dodger held his ground and stared at the man. “And the kid?’
Feng sucked a quick breath through his teeth. “Not onboard. I’ve searched this place top to bottom. I think that bastard must’ve taken him with them.”
“Figures.” Dodger shook his head. “I still can’t believe you managed all of this.”
“Oh really? Big talk from a man who can’t stand on his own.”
Dodger rolled his eyes.
“For starters,” Feng said, prompting Dodger into motion again as they talked. “I had time to spare considering you were busy playing sleeping beauty.” He pushed through the door and helped Dodger down the staircase. “Secondly, you aren’t the only one good at this sort of game. I was sneaking into dungeons and freeing folks long before your great-great-great grandfather was a glint in his father’s, father’s, father’s eye.” Feng led Dodger through the elaborately decorated meeting space. “Thirdly I put the crew to sleep with a smoke bomb full of sleeping powder when I boarded. Easy peasy.”
“Easy peasy,” Dodger echoed.
Feng hissed. “Come to think of it, that might be why you’re so damned drugged up. Sorry about that.”
Dodger chuckled. “Boy you thought of everything.”
As Feng limped Dodger across the room there came a steady thump from one of the doors behind them. At first Dodger thought it was the sound of more gunfire, until it came again. It was too close. Too steady. A rhythmic thump, thump, thump, that grew louder with each second. Feng stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“What was that?” Dodger said.
“I don’t know,” Feng said, and prompted Dodger back into motion.
The thumps stopped all at once, replaced by a loud bang on the door.
Feng swung the pair of them around to face the door and the noise. “What in the hell?”
The wooden door bulged as someone beat the tar out of it from the other side.
“Where does that door go?” Dodger said.
“It leads up to the bridge,” Feng said. “I closed and locked it after I searched the place.”
“Didn’t you say Grinder was up there?”
At his question, the door shattered inward, showering Dodger and Feng with shards of wood. The pair of them ducked and separated, Feng rolling one way as Dodger did his best to roll the opposite direction. When the dust cleared, Dodger wasn’t surprised to see Grinder standing in the shattered remains of the doorway. He paused there, staring almost blankly into the meeting room. Dodger thought for a brief blessed moment that the thing had slipped some kind of gear. But no, Grinder joined his huge hands to crack his impressive knuckles. The metallic clicks echoed through the room like tiny gunshots. As he did this, a small metal tube slid out from between his silent lips. From the tube issued his master’s voice.
“Mr. Dodger!” Rex said, with some level of good cheer. “If this message has reached you, then I am certain you have discovered my sudden and unexpected absence. It seems your crew failed to follow your last instructions, choosing to engage in battle with my men instead of turning tail and running. They will regret this with their last breath. I can assure you of that. They might win this battle, but I have just begun to fight this war.”
Grinder stepped through the ruined door and began to slowly scan the room.
Dodger crouched behind the couch. He caught sight of the fringe of Feng’s gown poking out from the side of one of the Chippendales. For the life of him, Dodger couldn’t understand how Feng traipsed around the ship this whole time without engaging the mechanical monster.
Rex’s voice blathered on. “My manservant, however, is seeing to his last instruction, as a good servant should. I set him to the task of managing the helm, to keep the Phoenix in the air as long as possible. However, his final instruction was simple. To make sure that you do not leave this airship alive.”
Which explained why Grinder was just now gearing up for action. Dodger glanced around, trying to find anything he could use as a weapon. The tea trolley was still parked near the coffee table, but contained nothing useful. Unless Grinder wanted a cake and a cup of hot tea.
A cup of hot tea. There was an idea.
“As you have probably surmised,” Rex said, “I have the child. I also have your confidant, Mr. Carr. Thank you for letting me know he was untrustworthy. He shall be punished in due time.”
Dodger bit his lip and cursed himself for letting that one slip. Poor Carr would pay the price for Dodger’s indiscretion. Grinder took another step forward, focusing his attention on the cabinet Feng hid behind. Damn thing must’ve seen the Celestial’s robe as well.
“For now,” Rex said, “I am forced to bid you adieu. Enjoy your time with Mr. Grinder. I am sure it will be the last chance you have to enjoy anything. Oh and I thought you’d like to know, I removed his self-control filter. I am afraid he won’t know when enough is enough. But you will. You will know and your crew will find out when they discover your bloody, pulpy remains.”
With that, the speaker withdrew, leaving Grinder silent once more. The machine moved closer to the cabinet, flexing his big hands. Feng leaned around the Chippendale and winked at Dodger. Grinder grabbed the cabinet between his big hands and shoved it to one side. Springing to his feet, Feng leapt back.
“Grinder!” Dodger shouted. “It’s me you want. Not him.”
Grinder turned to the sound of Dodger’s voice. He flexed his fists again and took a few steps toward Dodger. The clear sound of clicking gears came with his movements.
“Go,” Dodger said. “Get Boon out of here. This thing won’t let me leave. No sense in both of us staying.”
“I have a better idea,” Feng said.
To Dodger’s amazement, the codeword brought Grinder to a total stop. The mechanical man fell still and relaxed, his head drooping a bit to the right as he went slack.
“I’ll be damned,” Dodger said.
“Why so surprised,” Feng said. “The mutt copies the doc. That much is evident.” He stood next to Grinder, hands on his hips, looking up at the massive machine. “Boy he is a big one. You think maybe he eats his spinach every-”
Without warning, Grinder snapped to attention and snatched Feng up by the throat.
“Feng!” Dodger cried.
The Celestial kicked and clawed, but the mechanical man had too strong a grip. Grinder twisted Feng’s head to an odd angle, filling the small room with sickening crunch of bone against bone.
Dodger’s eyes went saucer wide at the sound.
The machine tossed Feng’s limp form aside. Feng tumbled against the Hepplewhite, landing arms and legs akimbo like a discarded ragdoll. He remained there, unmoving. Dodger shook his head in disbelief. There was no way Feng was dead. No way. Eyes burning, Dodger looked up to Grinder.
The damned thing was smiling.
“You monster,” Dodger said. He ignored all of his instincts to keep the hell away from the powerful machine, instead running headlong for it. As he closed in, Dodger caught a sight he was pleased to take to his grave.
Mr. Grinder had lost the smile and now looked genuinely surprised that Dodger was attacking him.
Dodger bull rushed the beast, shoving his shoulder into the mechanical monstrosity and pushing it as hard as he could across the room. Grinder dug in his heels, taking the full weight of Dodger’s attack with ease as the pair of them slid over the hardwood floor. Once Dodger ran out of steam, Grind flung the man back with ease. Dodger tumbled away, knocking the tea trolley to the floor with him. Cold water spilled out over the wooden slats, pooling around Dodger as he struggled to get to his feet. The beast carelessly stomped on the overturned cups, crunching his way over broken china on his way to Dodger. Dodger scrambled, but Grinder reached down, pulled him upright and tossed him across the room. Dodger soared toward the Chippendales, landing against one of the fancy cabinets with a grunt, shattering the glass front. He rolled over, feeling around for anything he could use as a weapon. Grinder approached him again, cracking those huge knuckles as he crossed the room.
Dodger’s hand brushed something metallic. He grabbed it and swiped at Grinder. The machine knocked the cake server out of Dodger’s hand and grabbed him by the throat. Grinder lifted him off of his feet. There, Dodger dangled from the mechanical monster’s grip. He clawed at the metal hand clutching his throat, struggling to breathe. The air didn’t come. His lungs smoldered in the vacuum, well on their way to collapsing. The world narrowed to a dark tunnel as his heart roared in his ears. A rising tide of blood whooshing to and fro between his ears. Black blobs swam in his vision, signaling Dodger to the end of his life.
He began to hallucinate then. He was sure of it. Because when he glanced over Grinder’s shoulder, Dodger found a curious and impossible sight.
Feng’s corpse was moving.