mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
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How do you measure the success of an underground guerrilla movement against The Man? Is it better to work secret mischief in perpetuity, or is there value in a loud, disruptive, but potentially self-destructive act if it draws attention to your cause and the truth is set free? In other words, is it better to be a reactant or a catalyst? Does it matter if your recipe for social change is exothermic or endothermic? How does activation energy fit into this awkward metaphor?

And speaking of The Man, there is a particularly nefarious character who gets talked about a lot in this story, and you may have been wondering, "When are we going to meet this villain?" This chapter will not disappoint.

(Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

(2971 words)

Chapter 7

The sun gleamed off the of the snowy eastern slopes of Mt. Thylacoma. We had bounded halfway around the mountain in the Locust, snapping young firs and scattering wildlife with every leap. We had now reached the far wild side, hidden from Queen City and Montgomery's factory. Although the Locust was taller than many of the trees, we had found a deep sheltered gully that shielded us from most directions. Curious jays hopped among the hemlock branches, inspecting the human invaders and our unusual vehicle.

"She's drying out in this sunlight," observed Wilhelm. "You might want to get off for this part." He tilted the head of the machine to the ground, and the four of us disembarked. Wilhelm stretched the Locust's legs up as tall as they would go and tilted the body so its nose pointed in the air and its posterior end touched the ground. Water began to spill from a tank buried in the nose. It trickled down over the flanks and legs of the Locust, quenching the zwitters' constant thirst. Wilhelm looked like a tiny doll perched on the head of the machine far above us.

He lowered the Locust's head to the ground and dismounted. "We're getting low on triph," he said. "We'll be poked if we need to stay on the lam for a few days."

"How much of the Locust can you dismantle before it becomes nonambulatory?" asked Gao.

"Dismantle her? You mean to save weight? It still wouldn't work; a lighter Locust would still need more triph than..."

"I mean to build a triph synthesizer," said Gao.

"What?" I interrupted. "You want to construct one of those huge contraptions out here in the woods? That would never work."

Wilhelm was deep in thought, excited by a new engineering puzzle. "The chains that helped pull her out of the water and assemble her are just baggage now," he thought aloud. "If I strip her down, I bet I could spare a least a half-mile of chain, probably more."

A half-mile sounded like a lot to me, but I started to calculate how many miles of folded chain must constitute the Locust. A half-mile would be just over five thousand zwitters. You could amass that many just by hollowing out one of the Locust's legs. I pulled out the papers with my notes and tried to estimate how many zwitters we had counted.

"That should be enough," said Gao. "Wilhelm, you're in charge of deciding what can be safely excised from the Locust. Henrietta will help you make a pile of the spare zwitters. Fred and Wilkins will work on reconstructing the machine we tore apart this morning. I will look for a suitable place to install it and begin digging a hole. Once I hit bedrock, I'll need the Locust to help me jackhammer my way down to the magma. You can make her do that, right Wilhelm?"

"She can do do anything," Wilhelm beamed.

"You mean deliberately carving another proton leak?" I asked, incredulous. "We barely survived the last one."

"Last time you didn't have the Locust," said Wilhelm. "She can ram anything down that hole and plug it up as needed."

"Montgomery must have done it somehow the first time," Henrietta pointed out. "Are you saying we're not as clever as he was?"

And so we worked. At first, Wilhelm needed to identify and extract the unnecessary chains from the Locust. Since we couldn't help him make his decisions, nor could we proceed before he had finished, Fred and I wandered into the heath to look for huckleberries. It was late in the season for them, but it had been a while since any of us had eaten a decent meal. Cresting a ridge we spooked a deer, but I carried no weapon for hunting. We watched it bound away down the slope against the backdrop of a majestic landscape. A bald eagle soared across the valley beneath us.

"Why would anyone choose to plop the industrial center of the world right in the middle of this idyllic natural paradise?" I asked rhetorically.

"Why do you suppose globular technology is based in Queen City, anyway?" Fred asked me with a tone implying that she already had an answer in mind.

"Well," I replied, beginning to consider the question, "zwitters are an abundant natural resource in this region. The natives have been building short chains for at least a thousand years."

"Yes, but just because they come from here doesn't mean this would be the hub of production. The countries best known for their confections are not the ones that grow chocolate beans."

"The water, then. It rains all the time, or at least is cloudy so things don't dry up, and Queen City is built on the tidal flats so the machines can be moistened with seawater, even though that means raising the streets above the doorways."

Fred was a bit frustrated that I wasn't giving the answer she had in mind. "Yes, yes, another good point. It's related to the climate, but not the wetness, exactly."

"What is it, then?"

She responded with another question. "Do you know how many possible different globular machines there could be? How many combinations of zwitters?"

"I don't know," I said. "there are twenty different zwitters, so there must be thousands of ways of arranging them into chains. Maybe even a million."

"Wrong," she said, with a gleam in her eye. "Take an little chain eighty zwitters long. As you know, a chain couldn't be much shorter than that and still fold up into a useful machine. The number of different possible eighty-zwitter chains is a one followed by more than a hundred zeros. That's more than the number of seconds that have ever passed in the history of time. More than the number of fundamental particles in the universe. For a longer chain, say a thousand zwitters long, the number is a one followed by more than three hundred thousand zeros. And for a machine the size of the triph synthesizers or the Locust, the number surpasses human comprehension."

"Wow," I said. "I had no idea. But what does that have to do with the weather?"

"My point," she continued, rather passionately, "is that globular machines are complex. Designing a single one takes months of study, intense intellectual concentration, and pages of mathematical calculations. If you'd rather sit on a sunny beach, you'd move south. The grey skies of Queen City attract bookish types who are willing to put in the time sitting at a desk with a cup of coffee while the rain falls outside."

An image of my late wife formed in my mind. I remembered her poring over stacks of engineering books with a mug of tea and a cat on her lap, looking for new ways to make our little triph business more efficient. Then I thought of the people who now surrounded me. To have designed the Locust, Wilhelm must have been equally diligent, as well as a genius. Montgomery's triph synthesizers were just as impressive, and I had to give the man credit for carrying out such a massive project. Sardoni, too, must have had a mind that would be difficult to replace. I thought back to the extensive library in Fred's house. Were those her books? Did she own the house? I realized I still knew very little of her.

"Is that what you did?" I asked, "did you move to Queen City for a career as an intellectual?"

"We aren't supposed to know each other's real identities," she said. "I told you."

"Sorry," I mumbled. "Look," I said, to change the subject, "I think I see some berries over there."

An hour later we returned to the Locust, having eaten most of the berries we had found but bearing meager handfuls for the others. Clouds had begun to roll in and obscure the sun. Henrietta and Wilhelm had started to disassemble part of the Locust. There was no sign of Gao.

"Let's start building the triph synthesizer," suggested Fred. "Find your notes."

I unfolded the papers on which I had scrawled fragments of sequence. "This is going to be a challenge," I said. "We have all of the sequence, but I didn't keep track of how they all fit together."

"We'll figure it out," said Fred optimistically. "The structure is fresh in our minds. Once we have a few chains in front of us, we'll remember how they go."

I decided that if ignoring my inherent skepticism had gotten me this far, there was no reason to change my strategy at this time. "Okay, find a glycine," I said, noting a G that I had written. Fred fished the tiny ivory-colored zwitter from the pile of discarded zwitters. Next came an S. "Join it to a serine," I continued.

A chain began to slowly grow. Remarkably, I was having fun. Locking the colorful construction units together reminded me of my old childhood toys - the blocks and jigsaw puzzle pieces and little wooden models. Building something tapped into a long-repressed creative strain within me.

I turned to another page and glanced down at it. My heart stopped. There, in the sequence of letters, was my wife's maiden name: L-I-L-Y-F-A-E-A-L-A-S-Y. Somehow I hadn't noticed it before when we were just reciting zwitter by zwitter, but now it seemed to leap off the page. "Lily Fae," I gasped.

"What's that?" asked Fred.

"There's just... I'm sure it's just a coincidence but it startled me. My wife's name is part of the sequence."

"Lily? Her first name is in there?"

"First, middle, and last. Lily Fae Alasy."

Fred stopped inserting a valine into a methionine and stood holding both zwitters and staring off into space. "Twelve letters," she said finally. "That's ten to the fifteenth."

"Pretty improbable, eh? I supposed you look at enough sequence, and eventually it will spell something."

"Yes," she said, finally. "Just a coincidence. Let's keep building."

A few minutes later, Gao appeared. "I have dug a hole," he announced. "The Locust will have to finish it for me. Why don't you bring over the chains you've completed so you can begin to assemble them in the cavity?"

We loaded the chains and the loose zwitters onto the Locust and climbed aboard. From atop the machine, Gao pointed out the site he had selected just two hundred yards away. It was along the side of the gully and protected by firs, so it would be hard for anyone to find. With a mighty boing! we were there. Gao had produced an impressive dirt pile next to a gaping pit that reach down to the crust of hardened lava.

"You know," said Wilhelm, "once this bunghole starts to scoot, it's a a bit of a taint that we only have as much spent triph as we brought. We could really load up. Back in Queen City spent triph clogs the streets, but we're out on this mountain."

"The tracks!" exclaimed Henrietta. "The deoná train tracks are partly made of spent triph. Montgomery's freight line goes all the way around this mountain. We could sabotage a quarter-mile of track and have more spent triph than we know what to do with."

Wilhelm's eyes lit up. "That's the kind of power I'd like. The Locust could carry it. If we charged all of those nuggets, we'd be ready for anything."

"I agree," said Gao. "Wilhelm, what do you say we jump down the mountain and find some deoná?"

"But the people on the trains..." I began.

"No one uses those tracks but Montgomery," said Fred. "And just for triph cars, not passengers. I wouldn't worry about it."

A few minutes later, the Locust had disappeared with Gao and Wilhelm aboard. Henrietta, Fred, and I returned to the task of beading the chains. Since the hole didn't reach down to the magma yet, we couldn't actually install the motor, but we started to assemble it in the hole just to see how it would fit and jog our memories of how the chains intertwined.

A half-hour later, a light rain was falling on our opus. "Almost there," I said. My hands were blistered and my arms exhausted from snapping zwitters together and hauling chain. All parts of me that I could see were smeared with mud; I could only imagine that my face was equally filthy. The false monocle Fred had given me for a disguise was long since lost. Still, I glowed with pride. "This is amazing! We did it: it looks just like the one we took apart this morning." The nearly-completed motor was crammed into the pit. We would have to take it out again to finish drilling, but for now I admired it in place. It looked somewhat comical, this bastion of industrial might out here in the wilderness with chipmunks scurrying over it. There were no self-congratulatory sounds from my two female companions, however. "Fred? Henrietta?"

They did not answer. They were staring at the sky. I followed their gaze and was startled to see a globular machine doing something no machine had ever been known to do: it was flying. It had the same rotating blades as the monstrous walkers led by the guards at Montgomery's factory.

"Hide," said Henrietta. We were already underneath the canopy alongside the triph motor, but we slowly backed farther into the shadows and crouched down among the wet salal and ferns.

The flying machine came closer. It had two rotating blades that appeared to be driving it. Two people were perched in front, but they were too far away to identify. The machine paused, hovering in mid-air like a hummingbird. Some sort of man-sized globular contraption dropped out of it and fell among the trees. The globular hummingbird proceeded, darting this way and that. I was relieved that it wasn't heading straight toward us, as this suggested that our location was still hidden. Nevertheless, its wanderings eventually brought it nearer. I recognized the pilots as Petrosky and one of Montgomery's guards. They were scanning the ground.

The rotorcraft stopped again at the edge of our gully. Rainwater flew off of the spinning blades. Petrosky pulled a chain and a hatch opened beneath the machine. Another device fell to the ground. It was Y-shaped. The stem of the Y wriggled along the ground like snake, while the two branches of the Y hungrily snapped open and closed. It evoked roughly the size, shape, and terror of an alligator.

"Why do so many of these things have jaws?" I moaned. "What is that anyway?"

Henrietta said "We don't know," while Fred simultaneously said, "An antibody."

"A what?" asked Henrietta and I.

"It's an antibody. It's shaped to fit the triph synthesizer, like another lock and key. If it finds it, it will recognize it, and that will be bad."

"How do you know that?" asked Henrietta.

"That it'll be bad? Just a hunch based on all of those explosives strapped to its back."

"No, how do you know it's designed to hone in on the triph synthesizer we built?"

"I'll explain later," said Fred. "The good thing is, it's blind. It doesn't know it's close. It will flail around aimlessly until it feels its prey in its jaws. Oh, it is getting nearer, though."

The antibody was only a few yards away. We watched it creep toward us in horrified silence. The hummingbird had moved on and was dropping another antibody on the adjacent ridge.

"Mercy," exclaimed Henrietta, "if it doesn't know it's close, I'm not going to let it find out." She seized a large stick and charged out of the thicket toward the reptilian menace. She jabbed the stick in its jaws and pushed the machine around so it was pointing away from us. It thrashed angrily. Inspired, Henry poked it again, prodding it down the slope. She herded it to the steepest part where it lost its grip on the terrain and tumbled down the ravine far below its target.

Having vanquished the monster, Henry looked up to see the rotorcraft bearing down on her. It must have spotted her from afar after she ran out into the open.

"Run, Henry!" yelled Fred. Bravely keeping Petrosky off of our tail, Henry ran in the opposite direction across a meadow. Unfortunately, she could not possibly win a race against the flying machine. It swooped down and, like an osprey catching a trout, snatched her off the ground with the same hatch doors that had released the antibodies. The machine began to spiral higher and higher. Henry was dangling from the belly of the bird, kicking her legs and shouting. Petrosky was not taking her anywhere but straight up. He was not kidnapping her. The only conclusion was that he intended to drop her from a great height and worry about her no more.

With a fierce determination burned into her face, Fred stormed from the safety of the firs into the open meadow. She threw her head up to look directly at our enemies and pointed at them threateningly with a perfectly outstretched arm. She held this pose for a few seconds as the raindrops pelted her face, then she boldly dropped her hand to point at the ground near her feet. She looked like an enraged mother telling her naughty children to get down here now!

From high above, Petrosky watched her with some sort of navigational scope, the same instrument that must have allowed him to spot Henrietta. He did not drop his live cargo. Instead, the globular hummingbird slowly descended. It released Herietta gently to the ground and landed a few feet away. Petrosky and the guard dismounted. They lowered their heads in deference toward Fred.

"Please to forgiving us, Mr. Montgomery," said the guard. "Ourselves not knowing you were here."


mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)

October 2015

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