mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
[personal profile] mrcreek
I know, I know, I finally posted an updated chapter months after posting the first draft, and the story still didn't progress any further. However, I now present chapter 2. There will be ten chapters in total, and I'm going to try to post one every few days now until it's all up.

Daunted non-scientists: Don't worry if you don't understand what things are "supposed" to be. You don't need to know any more than what is presented to follow the plot.

Pedantic scientists: I know that the science is wrong. It's supposed to be that way. It's a fantasy.

Curious non-scientists: Ignore that. A lot of the story is based on real science. I encourage you to learn more, it's cool stuff.

Non-pedantic scientists: There are not very many of you. Try not to go extinct.

(1817 words):

Chapter 2

I was temporarily at a loss about what to do. Should I tell someone what had happened? Return and try to retrieve my triph? Go home, drink a brandy, and crouch into a fetal position? It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the contents of the envelope in my possession. I stepped behind an enormous flying buttress of translucent chitin, the main architectural component of the train station. Confident that no one was watching, I reached inside.

The envelope contained numerous papers and a single zwitter: waxy, prase-colored phenylalanine with its characteristic aromatic scent. But no, it wasn't phenylalanine, it had been modified by a couple of glassy hydroxyl groups and it had lost its male nubbit. I didn't know what to make of it. I paged through the papers. My eyes fell on a name and address: Mr. Fred Bacon, 4301 Ceramide St., Queen City. From the context, it looked to be a colleague of the late repairman. Aha!, I thought, someone I can confide in and pass the responsibility to. But Queen City was a hundred and fifty miles to the north. The only way to travel that far would be... a train.

A train was departing for Queen City in five minutes. I purchased ticket and and ran outside, through the rain, to the platform.

The locomotive was enormous. It must have been formed from a hundred folded zwitter chains, each of which was made of hundreds of individual zwitters. As with the washing machine, only the wettable zwitters faced outward into the rain. It had no wheels; rather, it pulled itself along the track with doughy appendages, similar to my moped. The track was made of deoná, a sturdy inert substance with two rails that could stretch indefinitely into the distance. The cross ties of the deoná track were built from spent triph and other similar building blocks. Long ago, the instructions for making globular machines were actually written with deoná, which I always found amusing. If each cross tie was a single letter, it would take an eighth of a mile of track just to write out the sequence of a single zwitter chain that would fold up into a machine the size of a man. It was much more concise to record design plans on paper. But deoná was useful for connecting two distant points. The rails were elevated fifteen feet off the ground and they coiled around each other in a spiral. A locomotive would follow suit, rapidly turning upside down and right side up like a roller coaster as it ran along the helical tracks. Behind the locomotive sat the fuel car, stuffed to the brim with triph. Behind that were the cheap passenger cars, which rotated around the tracks along with the engine. The classy passenger cars remained right side up the whole time. As the deoná tracks were negatively charged, these cars used maglev technology, in the form of positively charged zwitters, to levitate above the tracks. They did not touch the rotating part of the train directly, but were pulled forward by the electromagnetic force of a strongly negative car attached to the end of the rotating train. If you are wondering which type of car I rode in, you are obviously forgetting that I was a poor triphmonger who had failed to make a profit that evening.

Buckled in and fighting off nausea inside the spinning car, I pored over the papers from the envelope, trying to make sense of them while preventing them from scattering throughout the car. The car was oriented such that my head was closest to the deoná strand and my feet were farthest. Thus, centrifugal force pulled me down into my seat, mimicking gravity, albeit rather poorly. The envelope itself with the modified zwitter inside was firmly strapped to the floor, as was the norm for one's baggage.

The contents of the papers were mostly unintelligible scrawls, cryptic messages, and diagrams of zwitter chains. At first it looked as if someone were designing a globular machine. But that wasn't right either; they already had the design, or at least part of it. It was more like they were trying to reverse-engineer it. It was quite hard to follow. Eventually I gave up and, having finally accustomed myself to the swirling motion, reclined in my seat and dozed.

The trip took all night, mostly because the train stopped in every little burg along to way to exchange mail, goods, and the occasional passenger. As the morning sky lightened behind the grey overcast, I saw the splendor of Queen City laid out before me. Globular vehicles of all kinds bustled over the bridges and swam through the waterways. As the precipitation had paused, drivers were actively watering their machines to keep them functionally moist. The locomotive used a self-watering mechanism that squeezed liquid from barrels in a motion reminiscent of Mrs. Avery's bottler. Across the skyline, the smokestacks of factories along the waterfronts belched gritty smog from combusting triph nuggets. In the distance to the east I saw the base of Mt. Thylacoma, most of which was shrouded in clouds.

I got off of the train at the station downtown and promptly stumbled, needing a few moments to get used to stationary ground again. I found a city map helpfully plastered on a nearby wall and studied it. Ceramide Street was only a few blocks to the north, so I decided to complete my journey on foot rather than try to make sense of the city's cable cars. Men and women of all shapes and colors passed me in the crowded streets. Only a century ago, there had been naught but a few indigenous villages on this region, but in recent years countless immigrants had travelled from all over the world to seek their fortune in the globular technology of Queen City.

I approached the base of a precipitous hill and realized I would have to climb it. Halfway up I was out of breath and needed to rest. As I panted, a cable car glided past, its long arm extending down through a crack in the street where a moving zwitter chain filament pulled it up the hill. I regretted not boarding it at the bottom, but I had not stopped at a boarding platform so it left me behind.

Finally I reached the top of the hill, located the address, and walked up the path to an impressive three-story lodge of rough-hewn logs and vast glass windows. A maidservant opened the door. She was in her twenties and, though somewhat dirty, was visually quite stunning with raven hair cut boyishly short, the high cheekbones and olive complexion indicating a mix of indigenous and immigrant ancestry, and an intelligent gleam in her eyes. "May I help you?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, "I'm looking for Mr. Bacon."

"Oh," she said. "I shall fetch him at once." She turned and skipped up the stairs.

I waited for several minutes, admiring the rhododendrons in the yard. A light rain started up. Then it stopped. The sun came out. It began to rain again while the sun was still visible. This meteorological schizophrenia was in fact perfectly ordinary Queen City weather. Finally, the maid returned. She had washed her face, changed into a suit and tophat, and donned a pair of glasses. "How may I be of service?" she asked in a low voice. "I'm Mr. Bacon."

I didn't entirely know how to respond. I forced a laugh. "Very amusing, miss. Do you mean to tell me he's not home?"

"I beg your pardon?" she replied, offended. "I really don't have time for cranks."

I had not slept well that night, and I was not really in the mood for this young lady's odd sense of humor. I was beginning to tire of the whole affair. If I left the envelope here anonymously, I could wash my hands of the matter and not fear that anyone would ever link me to the bizarre events that had transpired. "Well miss," I said, "I have a package to deliver from an associate of Mr. Bacon's. Please see that he gets it." I turned to leave.

Before I had time to step off the porch, she clutched my collar, pulled me inside, and slammed the door. We stood face to face in a dark hall lined with overladen bookcases.

"How did you know it was me?" she demanded.

"What do you mean? You're obviously the same young lady who answered the door."

"I swear, I have used this disguise before and it's worked."

"Have you used it immediately after having appeared without the disguise?" I asked.

"Well, no... usually the people don't know how I normally look... and they've often been drinking... and it's not in the daylight, it's inside of smoky bars... but still, you are very perceptive sir."

"But this is Mr. Bacon's address. Surely those who know him..."

"I am the only Mr. Bacon there is. But very few know to associate him with this address. Who sent you?"

I relayed, as best I could, the story of the mysterious mechanic and his tragic fate. She was moved to tears by this news.

"Mr. Sardoni..." she wept softly.

As I didn't know how to describe the contents of the strange envelope I had inherited, I opened it up to show her. "He told me to take this. I've tried to understand this thing inside, but..."

She gasped. "He must have solved it."

"Solved what?" I asked.

"This is a key," she announced, indicating the modified zwitter. "It opens..." She looked around nervously, even though she was locked inside her own home, and hushed her voice. "It opens..." She paused again. "I really shouldn't tell you."

"That's quite all right, miss. None of my business, really. I'll be going, then."

"Oh no you won't. You're on the inside now. I meant that I shouldn't be the one to tell you, Mr. Gao should. Tonight." Her grief had been replaced by an excited, determined resolve.

"I really don't require..."

"You'll need a name."

"Forgive me, my name is..." I began.

"No!" she exclaimed. "None of us can know each others' real names. It's far too dangerous if we are ever caught. Give me a code name."

"Um... 3-2-X-C..."

"No, not like that, a real-sounding name, like Bacon."

"How about Wilkins?"

"That's perfect! You look just like a Wilkins." She was clearly enjoying herself. "Now, you'll need a disguise. Do you want to be Mr. Wilkins or Mrs. Wilkins?"

"Mr., preferably."

She looked mildly disappointed. "Could we still shave your burnsides?" she asked, producing a straight razor.

"Miss, this has gone far enough. No one touches my whiskers."

"Well, I can give you a monocle and a military uniform. Try to walk with a limp, like you have a war wound. Oh, I could give you some scars! This will be fun!"

I seriously doubted that.

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