Into the Fray
Dodger grabbed the sides of his head, trying to block out the awful high pitched noise. He saw Feng doing the same.
What is that? Feng said in underspeak.
I don’t know, Dodger said.
Do you see what I see? Boon said, joining the conversation.
What in the hell… Lelanea said in a soft underspeak whisper almost lost to the piercing shriek.
Dodger turned around to see what the fuss was about, surprised to see the battle had come to a standstill. The circus folk had ceased fighting, everyone grabbing their ears, trying to block out the terrible sound. The bulldog men also fell still, but instead of covering their ears, they stared up as one, to the Phoenix, the most probable source of the sudden, overbearing shriek.
What are they doing? Lelanea said.
Looks like some kind of trained response? Feng said. How do you feel, Lelanea? Any desire to drool or bark?
A low growl came across Dodger’s mind, suggesting Feng best watch his mental mouth.
How are the homunculi reacting? Dodger said.
They aren’t, Boon said. I got them all. There were only a half dozen or so.
Dodger grinned. Good work. Maybe this is a form of surrender? With their larger fighters gone, maybe they know they’ve been-
Oh, no, wait, Feng said. Something is happening.
Something was indeed happening.
The bulldogs shuddered and shook, much in the manner of Henry’s epileptic seizure. Each dog man frothed at the mouth; a thick, pink foam dribbling from their trembling lips. Their skin began to bubble and ooze, breaking open in large tears.
Jesus, Boon said.
I doubt He has anything to do with this, Feng said.
The overhead shriek began to flutter through an arpeggio, climbing and descending a tight range of high pitched sounds. With this, the bulldogs tensed, each one throwing his arms wide as his spine arched into a stiff curve. The foam pouring from their mouths went from pink to deep red. Their skin split open, like overripe fruit, tearing apart as something from deep inside pushed through. Dodger’s eyes went wide as he spied a pair of tentacles whipping up from the back of more than one bulldog.
Uncle was right, Lelanea said in awe. I didn’t believe him.
What was that? Dodger said.
Uncle was right. He suspected the bulldogs were just a larval state.
What does that mean? Boon said.
They are turning into the homunculi, Dodger said, getting her implication. Dear God they are turning into those monsters. He looked out across the battlefield. How many of those things are there?
At least a thousand left, Boon said. Maybe more. We cut down an awful lot of them, but there are so many-
We have to get these folks out of here, Dodger said over Boon’s thoughts.
Without warning, the shrieking from overhead stopped, leaving a sudden and terrifying vacuum in its place. One of the bulldogs all but exploded as it doubled in size. Its hind legs shifted back in a sickening crunch of bone. Its torso extended, tearing apart as new flesh emerged. Its head swelled and burst into that familiar shape. A second pair of limbs unfolded from beneath its arms. A wriggling pair of tentacles slithered from between its shoulder blades. Those tentacles reached out, snatched up one of Thad’s men and ripped the poor dog soldier in half. Sarah’s words suddenly echoed through his mind. Dodger wasn’t sure which of his companions had said it, or if perhaps he thought it himself.
As if the man was a piece of paper.
The beast roared, its shout echoing in the stunned silence of the gawking crowd. In some twisted response to the beast’s loud cry, a resounding boom filled the air above them, and with it the Phoenix exploded in a rain of fire and steel.
“Go!” Dodger shouted to Torque. “Get to the train! Now!”
Mr. Torque pedaled at full tilt, the Rhino’s flywheels screaming into motion.
Folks started shrieking and hollering and crying, but more importantly they started running. Running from the hulking monstrosities. Running from the fire falling from the sky. Running from the death and destruction all around them.
Dodger waved the folks around him toward the line in the distance. “Go! Go! Go!”
At least a hundred of the bulldogs were now full-fledged monsters, all tearing through the fleeing crowd. Boon and Lelanea responded, each matching the giant beasts for power and ferocity. They did their best to protect the circus folk and dog soldiers, but Dodger could see their best wasn’t damn near good enough.
There’s too many of them! Boon shouted.
Just keep them away from the others, Dodger said. And for Pete’s sake, someone get me a gun!
We can’t hold them for long, Lelanea said.
No need to, Feng said. Plan F is on the way.
Plan F? Dodger said. What in the hell plan letter was this one?
Here she comes!
A buzzing filled the air above them, and for one terrible moment Dodger thought they were in for something far worse than the homunculi. He lifted his face to the noise surprised to find the Jenny soaring through the smoke and fire overhead. The pilot brought the aircraft dangerously close to the ground, swinging as low as she could get it without landing entirely. From the flying machine came a fine mist, sprinkling down on the monsters and dog men and humans alike. Dodger didn’t know what effect the mist was intended to have, but on the humans and dog men it incurred the worst.
Everyone stopped running and stood in place as they coughed.
Dodger could understand why. The mist clogged his nostrils and burned his throat and made his lungs feel like they were full of fire. Certainly Plan F wasn’t just outright suicide? Sure seemed like it. He coughed, gagging up a mouthful of something bitter which he spat to one side. Rubbing at his watery eyes, Dodger peered across the battlefield just as the Jenny passed over again, showering the field once more with the thickening mist. He furrowed his brow. That couldn’t be right. Maybe it was the cough induced tears. Maybe it was an optical effect of the halo of mist. Or maybe Dodger really saw what he thought he saw.
There were at least several hundred of those things now, with the remaining bulldogs stuck in mid change. And stuck they would stay, at least for the few moments they had left. While the mist caused the humans and dog men to cough and gag, they same shower of fluid had an entirely different result on the beasts. The homunculi began to fall apart, dissolving as the mist coated them from head to tentacle to toes. The beasts didn’t go all at once like the averted fate of the dog men, or the inescapable end of the white buffalo. They liquefied in an unhurried, sloppy mess, like slowly melting snow. The worst part, at least the most disturbing thing for Dodger, was the lack of sound. The beasts didn’t scream, didn’t shriek or cry out in pain. They merely stood their ground and melted, as if accepting their fate, knowing there was nothing they could do to stop it.
The circus folk backed away in horror, as did the dog soldiers. Dodger leapt into action, guiding the onlookers to the far side of the field, away from the melting madness, lest the pooling remains proved toxic. The Jenny passed over again, spraying the battlefield a third time, spurring the liquefaction process onward.
“Looks like the doc’s plan worked,” Feng said.
“Plan F, huh?” Dodger said. “Tell me about it.”
“Remember how the doc worked up that serum to keep your Pack friends from dying?”
“Hieronymus came up with sort of the opposite. A compound to accelerate the decomposition of their DNA.”
Dodger glanced to the cowering dog soldiers then back to the pools of goop across the field. “Then why isn’t it working on the soldiers?”
“Because they have already had the original serum. Think of it like a vaccine.”
“All right, fair enough.” Dodger turned to face Feng. “Then here is the big question. Why the wait? Why go through all of this when he had the solution all along?”
Feng cocked his head at Dodger. “Really? You have to ask?” The Celestial walked away, leaving an almost embarrassed Dodger hanging his head.
No. Dodger didn’t have to ask. He knew the answer in his heart, as well as he knew his own name. The doc didn’t start with the compound because he could bring himself to slaughter the bulldogs wholesale. Not without offering them a chance to surrender. A chance to lay down their weapons and turn away from the evil of Rex’s madness. Sure, there was a slim chance of that happening, but that slim chance was enough to force the doc to hold the compound back.
Dodger raised his head to watch the last of the monsters melt away to slop.
They are all gone, Boon said.
Where is Rex? Lelanea said.
Gone, Feng said. He wasn’t aboard. He took the boy with him.
Damn it! Then this was just a distraction?
Some distraction, Dodger said.
What about … Boon said, not finishing the question.
Big, blonde, naked? Feng said. Takes about a fourteen triple E in boots? Yeah, I think I saw him laying about somewhere.
Lelanea and Boon’s laughter rolled over Dodger’s mind as refreshing as a spring rain. Sometimes the real goal wasn’t as clear as just killing the enemy. Sometimes the endgame was as simple as a shared laugh, a warm touch and a soft kiss. They may have lost Rex, but they had love, and in the end that was all that mattered.
“Is it over?” one of the circus folk asked.
“I think so,” Dodger said.
An enormous whoop went up over the crowd as everyone raised their arms in celebration. The circus folk and dog soldiers alike embraced one another, differences and strangeness set aside in the face of near destruction. After this moment of exhilaration passed, some folks fell into discussions, while others tended to the wounded.
“Looks like the good guys won,” Feng said.
“For now,” Dodger said.
“Disappointed you didn’t nab your man?”
Feng patted Dodger on the back. “You’ll get him next time.”
“That’s just it. There shouldn’t have been a next time. This was supposed to be the only time.”
Dodger looked out across the folks who fought under the Sleipnir’s banner. His banner. Regardless of the death and destruction wrought here today, everyone seemed in good spirits. Except for Dodger. Something wasn’t right in all of this. Something gnawed at him from the inside. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The fact that Rex escaped was only part of it. Dodger felt like he was waiting for something else to happen.
Waiting for something to happen specifically to him.