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mrcreek ([personal profile] mrcreek) wrote2010-04-19 12:52 am
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Polymer Monopoly chapter 4

The official nickname of Seattle, Washington was "Queen City" for over one hundred years, before it was dropped in 1982 due to its homosexual connotations. In its early days, Seattle was relatively lawless and rife with gambling, liquor, prostitution, riots, and general exploitation of the poor (including many Chinese and Native Americans) by the wealthy. For some reason, it didn't occur to anyone that building a city on muddy tidal flats might be foolish. After putting up with with filth and floods for a while, they decided to raise the city up a story. At first, just the streets were elevated above the storefronts, but eventually the entire ground level was covered by downtown Seattle, under which it still lies abandoned to this day.

Anyway, enough history. Time for another chapter of Polymer Monopoly (previous chapters 1, 2, and 3), in which I introduce the most impressive globular machine yet.

(2356 words)

Chapter 4

The five of us scampered down to the waterfront in the light nocturnal rain, the kind which hardly gets you wet. In this industrial part of Queen City, the ground floors of the buildings were one story below street level, directly flush with the tidal flats. In this way, ocean water was constantly accessible to moisten the globular engines and conveyor belts churning out books, canned goods, clothing, and countless widgets from inside the basements of these establishments. For ease of access, the sidewalks were also on this lower level below the road. We descended a ladder and proceeded along the sidewalks, grateful that we were relatively hidden in these dark narrow alleys from anyone who might be seeking us on the street. The air was thick with the scents of fish, seaweed, and salt. We skirted the docks, where great globular ships laden with triph and zwitters waited to brave the Sound and carry their wares all around the world. Gradually we made our way south to the open mudflats.

"Where are we going?" I asked. What I really meant was why, not where, but I wanted to ask something with a straightforward answer.

"What's the biggest machine you've ever seen?" asked Wilhelm.

"A locomotive, I suppose," I responded.

"Then you are going to love what I've built. It's much bigger than a locomotive."

"I've never heard of such a thing."

"No one has."

"But surely people have seen this contraption. You can't very well keep it inside your house, now, can you?"

"I haven't even seen it yet myself."

"You said you built it."

"I did. It's astronomical."

I gave up on this line of questioning as we moved out of the populated portion of the city and along the beach. The tide was low, and we began to sink into the wet ground. A sea lion barked in the distance. We approached a man-sized boulder, and Wilhelm braced himself against it to roll it over. I joined him, and with a hungry sucking sound, it broke free of the mud and rolled on its side. Wilhelm dug through the mud and rotting kelp underneath it until his hand found something. He pulled it up. In the dark, I could barely identify it as the end of a zwitter chain. Wilhelm removed the plugs covering the charged nubs and carefully folded the chain over itself, then over itself again in a precise configuration. Something clicked, and the chain began to roll itself up automatically. Wilhelm dropped the chain onto the mud and the growing coil at its end rolled itself in the same direction toward the bay, apparently following the buried chain that extended out toward the water. Like a globular ball of yarn rewinding itself, it disappeared into the night. There was a splash when it hit the shore, then silence.

"This will take a few minutes," said Wilhelm. "Go ahead and converse."

I turned and looked at my four companions standing up to their ankles in tidal muck. Given a moment to catch my breath, I began to take in the magnitude of the events in which I had become involved, and how much I still didn't understand them.

"Colonel," said Gao, "I gather that Sardoni did not formally initiate you, and while the details I have are still sparse, it seems you have been thrust into our venture without explicitly seeking us out. Nevertheless, as Wilhelm astutely observed, you chose to deliver the key, an object you must have realized was of great interest to Montgomery, to its recipient, instead of hiding it or offering it to Montgomery in hopes of a reward, as a coward might have done. For this reason, I infer that you are a man of integrity whose values are compatible with our goals."

"Yes, I think my values are compatible with your goals," I replied, then paused. "What are your goals, exactly?"

"Watch out!" shouted Wilhelm, shoving us all further up the beach. With a whistling sound, a lengthy loop of zwitter chain came sailing through the air from the direction of the Sound and splatted against the wet ground with a sharp thwack, spraying us with mud and seawater. Wilhelm knelt over it and folded it several times. Like the first bit of chain, this one began to roll itself up and return to the bay. Wilhelm grinned a bit sheepishly. "It's an extended process," he explained.

I looked to see if Gao has any intention of answering my question, but he was peering nonchalantly at a sand dollar he had picked up. "Look," I said, "It seems to me that you are engaged in corporate espionage to undermine Montgomery and set yourselves up in his stead. Now I can't say I oppose your plan, but how do I know you wouldn't be just as ruthless as he is, once given the opportunity? Maybe I should just go home and let you duke it out with him, if my lot will be the same no matter the outcome."

"How dare you compare us to him?" shot Henry. "The Vispiliase is not an entrepreneurial venture. We want to free the information for everyone, give every person the power to generate their own energy. No more robber barons."

"I'm sorry," I replied. "I just assumed... I mean, you are stealing his secrets. It complicates your moral high ground."

"I wonder," mused Gao, still peering at his sand dollar, "where he got those secrets in the first place. One would have to be awfully clever to invent all of that from scratch."

"Incoming!" yelled Wilhelm. This time, three loops of barnacle-encrusted zwitter chain smacked on the beach. In the darkness, it was impossible to see them until they landed, but I imagined them shooting out of the water moments before, like whales breaching, and beaching themselves. Wilhelm folded one of them and sent it back to the sea, while the other two remained. "I built it loop by loop," he said. "Most of it was underwater at any one time, since it was too big to assemble on the beach. I designed in this systematic progression to retrieve various parts of the chains as needed. A fold in one loop is a signal to extract another loop. Tonight, though, tonight it's all coming out."

Fred elbowed me.

"What?" I snapped. "I'm just standing here."

"Tell Mr. Gao that you want to be initiated," she stage whispered.

"Mr. Gao," I began, "I feel that I would..."

"Incoming!" yelled Wilhelm. With an aggressive tattoo, half a dozen salty chains landed to either side of us like a military assault. As always, Wilhelm sent one of them back for more. In addition, this time he dragged one of them over to another loop already lying on the beach and began braiding them together.

"Colonel," announced Gao, "We don't have a great deal of time. If you would join our mission, please indicate your willingness by saying, 'I will.'"

"I will," I said. "But..."

"Wonderful. Comrades, will we accept this gentleman into the Vispiliase?"

"We will," said Fred and Wilhelm in unison.

"Henrietta?" Gao asked his partner. So she wasn't trying to be a man. I saw the dark outline of her head turn to me.

"How did Sardoni die?" she asked me finally.

"He was beheaded by some kind of globular jaws," I replied.

"A cephalase," interjected Gao.

"Sent by Montgomery's agents?" she continued, still skeptical.

"That's what he said. I never saw anyone," I admitted.

"And you work for Montgomery," she stated.

"Yes, out of necessity. My late wife and I inherited a small triph business started her father, Jared Alasy. Without her help, I couldn't compete with Montgomery's empire, and I had to let him buy my operation. But that doesn't mean I do his bidding or arrange his trade negotiations of any kind, and certainly not anything sinister."

There was a great splash and an enormous shape flung itself out of the water and shook the ground when it landed. I could not see it clearly, but it towered over us, blocking the wind off the Sound and dripping salt water. It had to be at least four stories tall.

"Incredible," I said. "Is that it?"

"That's one of its legs," said Wilhelm.

Henry was not finished interrogating me. "Yet somehow you happened to be with Sardoni at the moment he died," she pointed out. "I'm supposed to believe that, with a cephalase gnashing its way toward his face, he took the time to hand over his most precious possession to a stranger? Isn't it more plausible that you attacked him with the cephalase first, then found this mysterious envelope containing an address, and decided to infiltrate our little club and gather some intelligence? Wouldn't it be in our best interest to dispose of you right now, as you most likely disposed of Sardoni?"

"No," I protested, "it wasn't like that. We jammed the cephalase's jaws open, though it was locked around his neck. That particular danger was neutralized, although more were coming and he couldn't escape through the channel like I did with that monster stuck on his head. He chose to take his own life rather than be captured."

No one said anything in response. I waited a few moments. Feeling the need to keep defending myself, I continued. "I realize I can't prove it, but I'm telling the truth."

"You just did prove it," said Gao. "Neither Montgomery nor anyone loyal to him would ever believe that we stand for anything other than monetary gain. They would never make up a story of such self-sacrifice, for they wouldn't consider it believable. Do you agree, Henrietta?"

Another pause. "I will accept Col. Wilkins into the Vispiliase," she said begrudgingly. "Not because you've convinced me that you're innocent, but only because I concede you might be, and we really have no choice at this point but to either accept you or kill you."

"Wonderful," said Gao.

"Horray!" shouted Fred. "Now I can teach you the secret handshake, the secret whistle, and the secret waltz. You know, in case you're ever at a ball and you need to let your partner know you're on the inside. Are you familiar with the Hesitation style?"

"There she folds!" announced Wilhelm. With an even mightier splash than before, several loose coils shot out of the water. As they tumbled through the air, I could hear the buzz of positive and negative zwitters finding and latching onto each other. The various pieces lying on the mudflat snaked along the ground toward each other and embraced, crackling with static. As always, the oily zwitters huddled together inside the folds. Layer upon layer grew, stacking high above us, blocking out what little moonlight was filtering down through the clouds. Then the commotion ceased. I felt the presence of the behemoth towering above us.

"Behold the Locust!" announced Wilhelm. "It's a taint that she has to emerge so nocturnally, as we can't truly appreciate her majesty. To know her, we must let her gently rock us, let her carry us across the landscape, feel the wind in our faces from atop her towering frame."

"Well done, Wilhelm." said Gao. "This is a work of genius. How do we ascend her?"

"One moment," he replied. Grabbing the side of a gargantuan leg, and carefully avoiding any charged parts, he climbed up and out of sight. "You don't have to follow me," he called back as an afterthought. "Just stay where you are." We did so. A few seconds later, with deep creaks and groans, the front of the machine lowered itself to the ground, with Wilhelm straddling it. I got the impression that the overall machine resembled a see-saw standing on two legs. The head end had just met us at sea level while the tail end had jutted up into the air. The four of us scrambled up to join Wilhelm. The machine was wet, of course, and covered with bits of sea life. Reaching out for a handhold, I grabbed a wriggling smelt, which gave me a start. I scraped mussels and chitons from a length of zwitter chain and sat down upon it.

"Everyone settled?" asked Wilhem. "Hold on tightly." My stomach dropped inside of me and the air whistled in my ears as we shot upward, the mighty level regaining a horizontal position. "Now to see if she can travel," gushed Wilhelm. He pulled a zwitter chain that ran back behind us into the guts of the machine. I could hear the bang and smell the matchhead-like scent of triph firing. I was expecting the machine to lurch forward to take a step, but instead my stomach leaped to my throat as we descended. This time, though, we didn't lean forward. The lever wasn't tilting; rather, it remained horizontal while the legs bent and squatted. The machine was crouching. With an unexpected jolt and a deafening boing!, the machine jumped. I gripped the nearest zwitters out of sheer terror. We flew through the air, easily a hundred yards above the ground. I could see the gaslights of Queen City below us. Wilhelm let out a primeval whoop. Fred screamed, though I couldn't tell if it was from fear or joy. Gao chuckled a little but seemed surprisingly serene. Henry muttered something about anatomical compensation, and I did my best not to whimper. We slowed at the crest of our trajectory and seemed to hang weightless in the air for a moment. Immediately, we accelerated back to the ground. "Watch this!" spouted Wilhelm. The machine shook violently when it landed, shedding clams and sea urchins than had been buried within it, but the legs bent and cushioned our impact. Without pause and with another boing!, they sent us back up into a fresh bounce. My stomach lurched and begged me to void its contents. Within seconds, we were hundreds of feet in the air again. Wilhelm was beside himself with delight. "Astronomical!" he declared. With such earth-trembling bounds, we hopped southeast, away from Queen City and toward the snowy slopes of Mt. Thylacoma.