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mrcreek ([personal profile] mrcreek) wrote2010-04-13 12:23 am
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Polymer Monopoly chapter 1, take 2

Polymer Monopoly, my biochemistry-based steampunk fantasy story, is coming together. I have rewritten the first chapter and fleshed out the rest of the plot. The setting, which wasn't clear in the original draft, is now the Pacific Northwest. Also, you learn a little more about the main character and his daily life before the action starts. It is a tale of a heist, of the little guy taking on the big guy through stealth, ingenuity, and courage. It is a tale of the innovative and optimistic spirit prevalent in the wild towns of the American frontier at the turn of the last century, when society strove to tame nature and nature fought back. Most of all, it is a tale of enormous protein molecules and the people who operate them. As I have done before, I think I will post it one or two chapters at a time every few days at first, then post a final draft later. As always, I welcome any comments or suggestions (rated PG-13 for violence).


Chapter 1

Though I am now known as the simple triphmonger who brought down the robber baron Ezekiel Montgomery, none of it would have happened if one of my globular moped's legs hadn't gotten itself denatured. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It began as an ordinary drizzly evening. I perched atop my moped as it stalked along the muddy cobblestone streets of the city on its two wide amoeba-like pseudopods. My moped resembled a multicolored jumbo beanbag, but like all globular machines, of course, it was not actually a bag but an aggregate of several thick coiled chains. Each chain looked something like a giant's necklace of various lumpy semiprecious stones strung together, each a bit larger than a fist. Water dripped off of the brim of my woven cedar bark hat, collected in the tufts of my sideburns, and dribbled down the back of my wool coat. As always, I was hawking triph door to door and miserable about it.

"Mrs. Avery," I pessimistically called to the old breweress in her weathered gingham dress, "how's your triph supply?"

"It's low, Mr. Wilkins, but I am awfully tired of this cheap mass-produced rubbish. It used to be so much better back when you made it yourself."

"Come now, it's only a dollar a nugget," I said, holding up a black rubber envelope the size of a loaf of bread that housed a single nugget.

"I could buy a fresh steelhead for a dollar. Will you make me choose between feeding my family and running my business?" She thumped a zwitter residue on the side of the bottling apparatus she was standing beside, a variegated globular machine shaped like a carousel. All of the brewing equipment was outdoors, behind locked fences but under no roof, in order to remain exposed to the rain.

"You can sell the spent triph back to us for thirty cents," I offered lamely. "Anyway, I don't set the prices, Montgomery does."

"Why you ever went to work for that awful man... You never would have if Lily Fae were still alive." She was right, not because my late wife had been controlling my choices, but because I had depended on her to help run our business. I would rather do anything than work for Montgomery, but after Lily Fae slipped into a coma and died, I had no one to help me manufacture triph, and I had to tap into his industrial supply.

"I don't suppose you want to hire me?" I asked.

"You know perfectly well that I can't afford to give anyone a job if I'm spending all of my money on your adenosine triphosphate. And what choice do I have but to pay?" She ducked into the brewery office and returned with two dozen gold dollar coins. I dismounted and began unloading envelopes of triph from the pouch at the rear of my moped. She unsheathed one of the rust-colored triph nuggets and carefully tucked it into a fold on the bottling apparatus. Mrs. Avery quickly stepped backward as the third white phosphate sphere on the triph nugget began to absorb the water falling upon it and glow with heat. In a moment, it popped off with a bang and disintegrated into an acidic haze that smelled like a struck matchstick. The machine shuddered and began to rotate, spraying us with rainwater that had collected upon it. Glass bottles clanked along the outer edge. As each bottle passed a great compressible wooden keg, a globular claw squeezed the keg and the bottle was filled with beer by a rubber hose. Another globular claw immediately stuffed a cork in the bottle.

"You'll eat well with that," she muttered.

"Almost all of this cash goes to Montgomery," I said. "I'll be supping on a camas biscuit and a cup of coffee, as usual. But thank you for your support." I took a fresh triph nugget from the storage pouch, added it to the moped's fuel pocket, and climbed back on board. With a bang and a lurch, the moped stepped forward into the wet evening, and I was off in search of more customers who needed to power their mills, printing presses, or elevators.

As I scanned the doorways for potential buyers, my moped stepped in a pothole into which some careless cretin had spilled a gallon of protons. The leg writhed in the pale orange acid and twisted itself inside out. My moped fell on its crumpled pseudopod, and my load of triph spilled into the wet street. I cursed. I wouldn't be able to renature the zwitter chain on my own, the light was fading, and if I abandoned my wares overnight they would surely be looted by passers by.

To my good fortune (more so than I realized at the time, but again, I'm getting ahead of myself), I spotted a dilapidated repair shop across the street. No one else was about, and I decided it would be safe to abandon my vehicle for a moment. My knocks upon the glass panels of the main entrance went unanswered, so I stepped into the alley to look for a side door. I found one next to a window displaying a cramped, cluttered workshop. I entered. It was pleasantly warm and dry inside. The smoky, ammonia-scented room was unoccupied, but the lighted candles and the dust in the air indicated that it had only recently been vacated. Boxes of zwitters, jugs of protons, and crates of bronze tools lined every wall. Several strung-out chains, each formed by hundreds of zwitters, hung from the ceiling, held in place by multiple iron clamps that prevented the chains from re-folding. Each link in the chain was a different shape and color: jade, coral, jet, mahogany, bronze, turquoise, and more. A chipped and splintered wooden workbench leaned against the wall nearest me, covered with candlewax, spray bottles, and various hand tools.

A single zwitter rested on the workbench. It was the size of large potato, lumpier but similar in color, with a hardy russet backbone and a jasper-red sleek knobby protrusion that glistened in the candlelight. I reached out and stroked the protrusion, which felt like amber that had been polished and well oiled. Zwitters varied in texture from smooth like glass, to wrinkled like the surface of an orange, to velvety like fabric. I picked the unit up by the backbone, which was rough to the touch. The zwitter was firm to my squeeze with a slight organic softness like a chunk of hard rubber or an unripe fruit. One end of the backbone sported a little male nub the size of a pinky toe, while the other side had a female cave that would fit the nub snugly. Tempted, I stuck my finger in the cloaca and received a painful shock that caused me to yell and drop the zwitter back onto the bench.

In response to my outburst, a door opened on the far wall and an elderly, stubbly man in a flannel shirt appeared, carrying a rubber triph envelope. "Isoleucine," he said, indicating the zwitter on the bench. "Don't touch the poles," he said, "they're charged." I should have known better; all zwitter chains, even the ones in my moped, had charged regions, but we usually either covered them with a plug or buried them against a section with the opposite charge, so it was easy to forget.

"Could you help..." I began, but he cut me off.

"One job at a time," he said, setting the envelope on the ground.

"I have a sizable quantity of triph..." I attempted.

"One job at a time," he said. Donning asbestos gloves, he lifted the zwitter up to his bespectacled face. "Wrong chirality," he said. "It got bent backwards, you see." He clamped the backbone in a vice grips that was bolted to the bench, such that the zwitter's oily side protrusion was pointing toward the wall. With a pliers, he gripped the protrusion firmly and yanked it toward himself, where it remained. "An easy fix," he said.

"Wonderful," I commented impatiently, "my needs should be equally..."

"One job at a time," he said. "Now to put it back." He stepped on a hickory stool and found the end of one of the chains dangling from the ceiling. The positive male end of the zwitter clearly attracted the negative female end of the chain, like a latex balloon that had been rubbed on a child's hair. The old mechanic snapped the zwitter into the chain. Then he found the male end of another chain and snapped it into the hole which had jolted me a minute earlier. "They're holding on by static now," he said, "but they need to be welded." He found two ring-shaped metal clamps and clipped them around the two connections he had just made at either end of the zwitter. He turned a crank on one of the clamps, and as it tightened, water began to drip off of the clamp onto the dirt floor. "Dehydration." he said. "You fuse the bond not with heat, but with dessication. There's water in these zwitters, and I need to squeeze it out of them." When the chain had been wrung dry, he turned to the other clamp, and repeated the process.

"That was a fascinating lesson," I said, trying to sound sincere. "I've denatured my..."

"One job..."

"... at a time," I finished. "What kind of machine is this, anyway?"

"Washing machine," he said. "It will reassemble easily. Stand back if you don't want to get wet." I was clearly already soaking from the rain outside. The repairman picked up a spray bottle in each hand and walked the length of the chain, spritzing it liberally with water. Once or twice, it twitched where he sprayed it. When he reached the end, he released one of the clamps that had been restraining the chain, and the terminus folded against itself. He released another clamp, and another. Like a muscular tentacle, the chain coiled and knotted itself into a ball wherever he freed it. "The positive charges pull on the negative charges," he said. "And the greasy parts don't like the water. They slip away from it whenever they can, like melted butter floating on the top of your soup." When he was finished, all of the oily residues, including the isoleucine he had repaired, had turned inward to stay dry and were not visible. The zwitter protrusions on the surface were not oily, but soft and absorbent like a cotton polar fleece. Each was a different color, making the overall machine look like a damp patchwork quilt that had been wrapped around a cauldron. One section of chain formed an arm that stuck into the bowl of the cauldron, which now sat in the center of the room. The man fed the machine a triph nugget and the arm began to grind against the cauldron walls, trying to scrub the laundry that was not there. "All done," announced the man. "Now, what can I help you with?"

"My moped," I said. "It's..."

I was interrupted again, but not by the man this time. A globular machine resembling a giant bear trap crashed through the window, spraying glass and knocking over candles. I rushed to right the candles and prevent a fire, while the machine chattered its jaws and bit the old man's wrist. As the man tried to push it off with his free hand, the machine worked its way up his arm and swallowed his head. I seized a heavy wrench and jammed it lengthwise into the mechanical maw, stopping it from chomping the man's head straight off. It strained against the wrench with a hungry force.

"Do you have a hydraulic jack?" I asked, hoping to pry the machine's mouth back open.

"It's too late. We're surrounded," he said from inside the machine.

"Surrounded by who?" I asked.

"Montgomery's agents." he said, which I thought was odd, since I was one of Montgomery's agents, in a sense. I mean, I sold his triph, didn't I? "Take that triph envelope and flee," he continued. "Use the channel, that's the only way you'll escape."

"But I can help you..."

"They'll be here any second. I'm doomed. And the longer I stay alive, the longer they'll torture me for information." There was a pounding at the door, and a second jawed menace broke through, gnashing wildly. "Go!" the man commanded. With a deft motion, he swung his arm up and knocked the wrench out of the machine's jaws. It instantly snapped shut around his neck, then fell to the floor, leaving the man's headless body to sway and topple forward.

Horrified, I snatched the envelope and dove into the channel on the wall. Channels were made of zwitter chains, like all advanced technology, in this case coiled into long tubes. They were primarily used to transport goods, but a person could use them safely, if uncomfortably. These elongated pores crisscrossed the city, linking businesses and major transportation hubs. The passageway was only about as wide as my shoulders, so I held still, hugged on all sides as if in a sleeping bag. The soft, moist, fleshy walls of the channel rippled and pushed me forward, like the walls of an esophagus swallowing a morsel. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the pleasant erogenous sensation of slipping through a tight lubricated canal. Perverse, I know, but anything to distract me from the death I had just witnessed.

The channel spat me out at the train station. The envelope and I were coated with a thin layer of mucus, but we were uninjured, and apparently safe from the murderous machines. For now.

It had been a most peculiar evening.