mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
[personal profile] mrcreek
We left our protagonists in a bit of a tight spot at the end of chapter five. But recall that I gave away the ending in the first sentence of the story, so they must get out of it somehow. In fact, they're really making progress and figuring things out. Of course there are some setbacks, but you might be tempted to think that they could wrap this all up pretty soon in a rather straightforward plot.

However, a story is like a polypeptide zwitter chain. Technically linear, but then it folds back on itself and later parts connect to earlier parts. Then in bends again. After a few of these twists and contortions, it has become a complex globular maze. And if you get lost, if you tuck under a loop of chain when you should have tucked over, you end up with mad cow disease. And no one wants that.

(Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

(2487 words)


Chapter 6

"I'll handle this," announced Fred, sliding off of the motor. "I'm a master of disguise." A hooded trenchcoat, identical to one the guard wore and therefore apparently standard issue, hung on the wall near the door. Fred slipped it on. It was clearly too large for her and gave her a childlike appearance, but the hood flopped over her face did hide her features. Gao nodded his approval, and she slipped out the door.

I gaped at my companion in his cowboy hat. "Are you sure that's wise?" I asked. "She's not really as good at disguising herself as she thinks she is."

"She'll do fine," he replied calmly, and crept off the machine to the door to listen. I followed.

From outside, we heard a gruff, accented voice say, "Everything being in order?"

"Everything is in order," Fred replied, using her deepest manliest voice that still sounded like a woman pretending to be a man.

"Myself, getting a tip of break-in tonight," said the gruff voice.

"A tip?" asked Fred.

"A sister of pleasure, she telling Petrosky what she overhearing: some hush-hush chatter about sneak in or something."

I cringed. The woman at the Hypertonic Halibut was an informant.

"Oh," Fred replied. "Well, there's no one in there, I just checked. I'll keep an eye out, though."

"You being new here?"

"Yes, just started."

"Better myself sweeping through there then. Freshy don't knowing where to look. Which age you being, anyway? Voice still breaking?"

"Oh no, you'd better not go in. Proton leak, you see. Could be dangerous. I'm on my way to go get cleaning supplies."

"Leak, saying you? Better myself sweeping though, see how bad. And that voice, not even like a child voice. You dressed a watchman, but sounding more like, like you're..."

Fred was starting to panic. She coughed vigorously. "I swallowed some protons, actually, and burned my throat. And actually, Montgomery's in there. He told me not to let anyone else endanger themselves by coming in. Actually, he's in quite the mood, you'd better not."

"Montgomery? Myself no wish to offending our boss. But myself, wonder why Montgomery on the grounds and this the middle of the night? Not usual. Unless he checking what the sister of pleasure told, but then why he needing come himself? He know it probably just some tale she hearing from her other sisters of pleasure, and what do any of they knowing about..." He paused. I listened for a terrifying moment. "Oh." he said finally. "Oh. OOOOOOHHHHHHH!" His tone suggested dawning comprehension and approval of the secret he now thought he shared with Fred. "Montgomery came here. Hide in there with... And the sister knew other sister would be here, and somewhere along, the message... ha! very laughing, this... first looking like some crime, but really just you here with... myself being on my way. Carry on. Myself telling no one."

We heard the heavy footsteps fall away into the distance. A few moments later Fred barged in the door.

"Well done," said Gao.

"I told you I could do it," Fred beamed.

"He thinks you're a prostitute trysting with Montgomery in here," I said. "You got lucky."

"Well..." muttered Fred, seemingly unwilling to admit even to herself that I had accurately described the guard's interpretation. "Maybe. But it worked, didn't it?"

We surveyed the unfinished task before us. It would be dawn before long. We had to hurry.

Gao scrambled up the motor and began ripping vast stretches of chain apart, throwing them over his shoulder and shouting the zwitter sequence as fast as he could. Whenever he paused to breathe or to tug a stubborn fold, Fred called out the the sequence from her outpost between the motor and the wall. I scribbled line after line of notes.

Finally, all that was left were the long shaft chains buried in the wall that rotated and rooted the machine. Gao struggled to pull one out but it wouldn't budge. "All together," he said. Fred and I each found a firm hold on the chain behind Gao. "On three we all tug," he commanded. "Ready? One, two, three!"

We strained as hard as we could for about twenty seconds. Nothing happened.

"I bet one of those other motors could pull it out for us," suggest Fred.

"But the chain's not long enough to reach," I said.

"Here," said Fred, pulling a clamp out of the pocket of her trenchcoat, which she was still wearing for some reason. She tossed it to me. I found the male end of one of the unraveled chains we had already sequenced and snapped the female end of a wall chain to this extension. I squeezed the water out of the connection, formally bonding the extension chain with the wall chain.

Gao nodded his approval wordlessly and ran to stop the flow of protons in the tube protruding from the next motor. He piled up a few of loose boards and stood on them to reach the metal wheel. I carried over the female end of the extended wall chain. When the motor stopped rotating, I found the male end of one of its chains and bonded the wall chain to the new motor. I stepped back.

"Loose it," I told Gao. He turned the wheel on the second motor's proton tube, and with a gurgling sound the hydrofluid began to rush through the glass pipe again. The motor turned halfway around, wrapping up the slack, and then stopped. The motor groaned and twitched, tightly anchored as it was now to the wall but wanting badly to turn. For a moment, it seemed that even this great machine was not enough to pull the chain from its hole. Then, with the monstrous sound of cracking stone, the motor whipped into a spin, coiling up the wall chain and yanking it out like a terrible bird pulling a giant worm from the ground. One freed, the chain whipped about like a mad snake as the motor flailed it wildly in circles. There was a deep grumble and a rushing noise, and gallons of orange proton acid began to spurt from the hole in the wall where the chain had been.

"Oh no," said Gao.

The acid burned everything it touched. Drops that splattered onto the deconstructed motor made the chains shiver and twist as they denatured. A few scattered quills I had left on the floor simply dissolved into oblivion. The wooden floor itself was slightly more resistant, but it gradually turned black and within a minute the acid had burned cracks through the wood to the andesite stone substrate below. Gao and I had instinctively run to the door, as far as we could from the gyrating chain and spewing lava. Fred had been nearest the hole. When the proton geyser had begun, she had jumped up onto the largest intact chunk of the motor we had dissected, and was now watching the acid pool around her. Her globular island was shuddering and slowly collapsing. Sparks of acid that flew high enough ate small holes in her trenchcoat.

"Fred!" I shouted.

"I'll open the crank to reduce the pressure!" she yelled. She jumped for the metal wheel that controlled the proton flow through the first glass tube. She wrenched it around and the acid started to move through it again. This lessened the pressure somewhat and the acid began to pour out of the hole at a gentler pace. Unfortunately, a hole is a hole, and the nothing would stop the acid completely. The shaft began to twitch, wanting to turn, but unable to function properly without all of its parts. Loose, exposed bits of chain, still connected to the embedded shaft, began to sway back and forth.

As Fred's island slowly sank, she scrambled up onto the glass pipe. As the glass was thick enough to withstand a high proton concentration, a little extra weight was not a burden for it.

"Now work your way to the door," said Gao. The pool of acid now covered much of the floor, extending all the way to the door. Gao and I had climbed a few feet up the stone wall near the door to stay safe. Fortunately, the walls would hold up better than the wooden floor. Unfortunately, the ceiling was partially supported by vertical wooden columns which were now being dissolved at the base. The spill had finally made its way back to a glass drain set into the floor near the base of the far wall and was starting to flow into it. It would have flowed directly into this drain from the start if it had merely dribbled out of the hole in the first place, but since the acid was shooting out halfway across the room, it had taken a while for the pool to find the exit. Even so, it was being replaced as quickly as it was disappearing.

"That is a lot of proton pressure," observed Fred from her perch. "I didn't expect it to be that high, did you?"

"No," said Gao.

Just then a siren sounded. The entire factory grounds had been alerted to the emergency.

"I also didn't expect that to happen," said Gao with a tone of sincere apology. "Move quickly, please."

Fred scooted along the pipe, precariously balanced over the orange sea of acid. She had only a few more yards to go. Behind her, the partial shaft was shaking vigorously from the pressure of flowing protons. One of the longer exposed sections convulsed and snapped back toward the acid spring, dancing and bobbing on the stream of corrosive liquid. With a final jerk, it lodged itself in the hole and stopped. No more proton lava emerged. The hole had been plugged again.

While clinging to the wall, Gao opened the door. The acid that had been pooling near the entrance drained out of it, leaving a clear path between us and safety. Clear of acid, at least.

"Here comes trouble," said Gao as he leaped out the door to meet it. I could hear the crackling of globular machinery moving toward us. Just then, one of the vertical support beams gave way and toppled down to its doom. I cringed as it brushed past a glass tube but did not shatter it. The ceiling sagged.

Fred jumped from the pipe and grabbed the door, which was swinging freely, its bottom edge burned black by tongues of acid. "Come on," she hissed, as she toppled out the door. I held my breath and flung myself out after her, clearing the small creek of toxic lava that was still trickling out. Dawn was breaking in the east, although the sun had yet to emerge from behind the mountain.

A globular army marched up the slope toward us. A front line of eight snapping cephalases gnashed their menacing jaws and flopped along the ground at a choppy but ceaseless pace. Behind them hopped four larger versions of the same model, with jaws large enough to slice a horse in two. They were flanked by four bipedal walkers with thick legs, similar to my moped, with some sort of rotating blade as long as my arm. Four guards wearing identical trenchcoats rode them, controlling both the large and small cephalases with leashes of cedarbark rope.

"I can handle this," said Fred, from deep underneath the hood of her pockmarked, oversized trenchcoat, looking rather ridiculous.

"No you can't," I said. "Not this time. Gao, which way should we flee?"

Gao, however, was standing his ground and defiantly facing the approaching guards. "Tell Montgomery that his brutal empire will crumble," he bellowed.

"All intruders will be terminated," yelled one of the guards, loosening his grip on the leashes.

Boing! Down on the valley floor, the Locust appeared sailing through the air, having just cleared the gate. Boing! In the daylight I could truly admire Wilhelm's craftsmanship for the first time. The locust was at least sixty feet tall and it shined wet with the morning dew. The two legs were not connected to each other but they bent together in smooth synchronized motions. They were narrowest near the ankles, directly above a pair of wide splayed feet, and they bulged like a pair of fat chicken thighs at the top where they attached to the rest of the machine. The bulk of the machine was an oblong baguette-shaped mass, even longer than the legs were tall, that balanced on the legs in its center and teetered back and forth. The guards turned at the sound, but had little time to react. In two leaps the Locust had reached us, and it was all the guards could do to jump out of the way as it landed on their mechanical army, crushing several of the cephalases. "Hop on," shouted Wilhelm, bending the front of the Locust down to meet us. Henrietta rode next to him. As soon as the three of us found a firm handhold, Wilhelm tilted the Locust back up to horizontal equilibrium. Without even giving us a chance to find a more secure seat, the Locust leaped anew with a great boing!, leaving the astonished guards to deal with the leaked protons and the partial collapse of the building.

"Just in time, Wilhelm," said Gao.

"We heard the alarm," replied the young engineer. "Where to?"

"We can't go back to civilization where Montgomery can find us, at least not right away," said Gao. "We need to hide."

"I'll see what I can do," said Wilhelm, driving the Locust into the forest.

"We found his secret," I announced, "enormous globular triph synthesizers that run on hydrothermal power."

"Did you get the sequence?" asked Henrietta.

"Wilkins?" asked Gao.

"Yes, I saved all of the paper," I replied. "But we never got the sequence of the rooted chains."

"Methioine, lysine, asparagine, valine, threonine..." Gao began to recite.

"You mean you memorized the sequence of the chain after it was pulled out, while it was flying around in the air? While acid lava was threatening to consume us all?" I asked, incredulous.

"I do try to be observant," said Gao modestly. He recited the sequence and I notated it.

"But there were other chains buried in the wall that we didn't see," I pointed out.

"I suspect they were identical, or nearly so. It's enough to start with, and we can always tweak the sequence as we see fit," said Gao.

"Is that leak going to destroy the factory?" I asked.

"That would be nice, but I don't think so," said Gao. "It looked like a reinforced tunnel that fit the globular plug perfectly. Even if the plug comes back out, or they remove it on purpose to reinstall the motor, they will be able to stop it up again. Do you concur, Fred?"

Fred was sulking off the the side and did not answer Gao. "I could have handled it," is all she said, glaring at me.

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