mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
[personal profile] mrcreek
Well, we have a posse. They have a target. There is a plan. But do these sorts of things ever go according to plan?

The end of this chapter (following these four: 1, 2, 3, 4) represent the halfway point of the story. The protagonists find themselves deep within the belly of the beast. Will they make it out again, or will they be digested? Or will they be digested and then make it out again in highly altered form via the beast's colon? And if so, will the process involve literal digestive enzymes as large as elephants, as ferocious as tigers, and as colorful as peacocks, this being the typical sort of thing that these characters keep encountering? Read on.

(2977 words)

Chapter 5

Mt. Thylacoma was a looming volcano towering two and a half miles into the sky, a mere twenty leagues southeast of Queen City's harbors. Its lower slopes were thick with evergreen forests, while glaciers coated the steep lava fields at higher elevations, ringing a gaping crater. Nestled in one of the valleys along its lower flanks, Montgomery had built a factory like the world had never seen. A wrought iron gate topped with glistening spikes at the entrance to valley barred anyone but a skilled mountaineer from entering the premises. No one knew what happened inside, but somehow megajoules of triph exited daily.

The endless jumping of the globular kangaroo had left me feeling extremely queasy by the time the Locust arrived at Montgomery's gate. At the crest of the final leap, Wilhelm pulled the zwitter chain that killed the triph furnace, and the legs cushioned our fall but did not jump again. I looked around. Everyone was windblown and white-knuckled, but no one else seemed quite as nauseous as I. The rain had let up, and it was still several hours before dawn. The gate was barely visible a quarter-mile away through the gloom. The bare deoná railway that carried the carloads of triph began near the gate and ran off through the firs where it split into multiple tracks leading to several population centers. No human sentries were to be seen. The mountain rose above us like an earthen testament to the might of Montgomery's empire. A spotted owl hooted from deep in the forest.

"Well done, Wilhelm," said Gao calmly. "I suggest you stay with the machine."

"Agreed," panted Wilhelm, looking wild-eyed and victorious.

"Henrietta will unlock the gate and remain outside to lock the three of us in," Gao continued. "We don't want to alert anyone to our presence with an open door."

"How does the key work?" I asked, realizing I didn't know. "How was Sardoni able to construct it?"

"The gate is iron," replied Henry, "but sealed with a massive globular knot of several thick chains. Montgomery, to what we hope will be his downfall, was overly ostentatious and chose to display this knot prominently on the front of the gate, as if to illustrate the impossibility of breaking and entering. We knew, or suspected, that an object of a precise shape must fit into a groove in this knot, unlocking it."

"Is anyone hungry?" interrupted Fred, who had been harvesting shellfish from the surface of the Locust. "I found some oysters. They're supposed to be high in protein."

"Ugh, how can you think about protein at a time like this?" I retorted, clutching my upset stomach. Nevertheless, Wilhelm accepted some and began to open them with a bronze awl.

"Fortunately," continued Henry, "nearly all of the zwitters that compose it are at least partially visible, if not when the gate is closed, then when it is briefly opened, as it is several times a day. Sardoni hid here in the woods outside the gate for a week, making detailed drawings of the knot when opened and closed. He was able to reconstruct the sequences of the chains nearly exactly."

"So he built a copy for himself?" I guessed.

"He did indeed," she responded. "And then it was just trial and error. Building shape after shape, trying to find one that fit. It took him months."

"And now," interrupted Fred again, slurping a raw oyster Wilhelm had cracked, "the target of his obsession is in your pants."

"So the key will only work if he inferred the sequence correctly," I mused. "And even if it does, there's no telling what we'll find inside or if we'll be able to gather useful information. Or, if we do, whether we'll make it out alive again." I vividly recalled the cephalases. I began to suspect that my queasiness was not only due to the motion of our transport.

"That's why we're a team," said Gao. "Henrietta and Wilhelm can come to our aid if necessary. I'd be surprised if Montgomery has anything that can take on the Locust. And that's why we have to move quickly. Let's disembark."

Wilhelm maneuvered the head of the Locust down to the ground, and the rest of us climbed off. "Good luck," he whispered as he rose back up into the night sky.

The four of us crept silently up to the gate. No one else was about. A faint glow, apparently from burning gas lamps, emanated from behind the gate. "The key," hissed Henry. I fished the triph envelope out of my pants with as much dignity as I could maintain, which turned out not to be very much, and passed it to her. She extracted the modified phenylalanine from its rubber sheath.

"I think there are some papers in there, too," I said. "They might help you use it correctly. Although it would be hard to read anything in this light."

"I don't need any papers," she insisted. She ran her inquisitive fingers over every inch of the key, gracefully tracing its smooth contours. Then she set it down and reached up to the knot, which was about as wide in diameter as my outstretched arms. She lowered her head, not looking at the knot at all, and explored it by touch. Intently, even slightly erotically, she stroked every exposed zwitter, studying its position, and identifying the charged ones by shape and texture without running her hand down the length of their painful side protrusions. She grabbed portions of chain and shifted them up and down, left and right, testing their mobility. Finally, she slid her fingers into a deep groove and made a series of almost imperceptibly subtle strokes. "Here," she finally announced, "is where it fits." She retrieved the key from the dewy ground, carefully oriented it, and then with a startlingly deft motion, thrust it deep into the groove and turned it counterclockwise.

The left and right sides of the knot slid away from each other reluctantly, like the clasped hands of two lovers with all of the fingers intertwined. The gate was open.

"Hurry," commanded Gao, shepherding Fred and I inside. "Thank you, Henrietta," he beamed, and kissed his partner before slipping through the gates himself. "We will be out again before you know it."

Inside the gates, Montgomery's valley was filled with numerous low wooden buildings. Most had a gas lamp flickering on an outside wall.

"Where do we begin?" asked Fred.

"I don't know how this complex is organized," replied Gao. "Let's see if any of these shacks are open."

We slunk over to the nearest structure, just to our right. There was no door on the wall facing us, so we began to walk around the building clockwise, looking for an entrance. Gao was in the lead. Suddenly he stopped and put it arms out, intending for us to be motionless and silent. We stood and listened for a few seconds.

Step. The unmistakable sound of a boot on the gravel. Step. We flattened ourselves against the building. Fortunately, there was no lamp on this wall and we were hidden in shadow.

Step. A figure rounded the corner, just twenty feet away from us. He wore a long hooded trenchcoat, a natural uniform for an outdoor post in this rainy climate. I could not see his face, but he was a tall and broad-shouldered, clearly a foreboding man. Step. He did not appear to be in any hurry or to have his suspicions aroused; instead, he seemed rather bored while on a routine patrol. Step. He passed us without breaking his stride and continued toward the gate. Had Henry managed to close it in time? The figure glanced at the gate as he passed but did not react as if anything were out of the ordinary. Step. He disappeared around another building, heading toward the north side of the valley.

Gao nodded to us, and we inched our way around the building, trying to stay flatted against it and out of the lamplight. Around the corner, we found an unlocked door and entered. I drooled at the sight of thousands of bulging triph envelopes stacked to the ceiling.

"A warehouse," said Gao. "That's of no use. We need to find where he makes the stuff."

Outside, there was no sign of the guard, so we risked running through a beam of light to another building. It was filled with single zwitters and portions of chains no more than a few zwitters long, nothing big enough to be functional. A storage shed for surplus parts. We tried several other buildings with similar results. Where was the actual factory?

"Maybe everything here on the valley floor is storage," suggested Fred. "Maybe we need to get to those buildings at the edge of the valley, built into the slope."

"Well, we can go to the side of the valley where the guard went, or the side where he came from," said Gao. "Take your pick.

Darting between shadows as best we could, we reached the south side of the valley a few minutes later. A steep incline rose before us, leading up to a ridge that ascended east toward the summit of Mt. Thylacoma. A row of stone buildings, each about fifty yard wide, had been constructed right against the side of the mountain. Now that we were closer, we could hear a faint hum coming from inside the buildings, a good sign. Glass tubes as thick as a man's neck emerged from the buildings and seemed to be carrying a fluid down to the valley floor, but in the dim light I could not see their contents very clearly. We found the nearest door and pushed it open. The hum intensified into a mechanical roar.

The flickering gaslight inside illuminated a row of four enormous globular motors attached to the far wall. They towered above us, reaching from the floor most of the way to the ceiling three stories up. Each was roughly spherical and attached to a rapidly spinning shaft which penetrated the far wall behind it. The glass tubes I had seen ran through the near wall and crossed the room above our heads, connecting with the rotating shafts and ferrying a dark orange-red fluid away from them and out of the building. Above the motors, great wooden crates stuffed with spent triph were attached to the ceiling. A chute funneled the spent triph nuggets onto the motors, where they bound to them. Massive wrinkles in the motor, clearly drawing power from the spinning shaft behind them, robotically flopped over the nuggets and connected each one to a new phosphorus. The now fully-energized triph was then jettisoned off into a trough. The motors grasped and spat off several triph nuggets each second. Alongside the crates above us, ceramic sprinklers misted the room and kept all of the globular pieces shiny, moist, and constantly spraying the room with water droplets as the shafts spun. As a result, the wooden floor was wet and a bit slippery.

"Incredible," gawked Gao, wide-eyed and barely audible over the whir.

"They're charging triph, but not using any," I mused loudly enough to be heard. "How are they powered?"

Gao smiled as if he had already figured it out but unwilling to say so outright. "What do you think, Fred?"

Fred scrunched her face in thought. "The tubes!" she yelled with more than enough volume to compensate for the noise. "They must be fuel or something."

"Triph is the only fuel that globular machines take, as far as I know," I said. "I've never seen that orange stuff before."

"Are you sure?" asked Gao. "Have you seen nothing similar?"

I paused. What was he talking about? Then I remembered the puddle that had started this whole adventure. "Protons?" I asked. "They're used in routine zwitter maintenance. But they're more pale than that. I've never seen such a deep shade."

"Perhaps you've never seen such a concentrated solution before," said Gao.

"Hydrothermal power!" exclaimed Fred excitedly. Hydrothermal power had nothing to do with water, but referred to hydrogen ions, also known as protons. Theoretically their force could be applied to mechanical labor, but I'd never heard of it actually being put into practice. "The volcano!" she continued. "It's stuffed full of proton magma. Releasing that pressure turns these motors, just like water turning a mill. It's coming straight through the motors, into the tubes and on outside."

Gao beamed with almost fatherly pride. "Exactly," he said. "We've found our answer. Now we need to get the sequence of one of those machines and get out of here."

I pondered the challenge that faced us. The shafts appeared to be rooted deep into the side of the mountain. There was no way we could infer the sequence just by looking at the visible part of final folded structure, as Sardoni had done with the gate lock. Even if we could, the motors were moving so quickly that the individual zwitters on them were a blur. We would have to to stop one of the machines, extract it from the wall, and unravel it.

"How do we do we stop the motor?" I asked. "The torque needed to counteract that angular momentum would be substantial."

"Maybe if we found a sturdy iron bar and jammed it between one of the shafts and the floor?" Fred suggested.

"No good," I replied. "We'd need at least five or six strong men, and we're just two... I mean three... but we're not that strong, and anyway it would snap out as soon as we tried to unfold the zwitter chains."

"We could go get the Locust," she offered.

"As if that wouldn't attract some attention," I scoffed.

"Then the only solution is to ride it," she announced. "Jump up on the shaft, and as you go around with it, you pull chains out and record the sequence."

"You're barking mad, woma- er, sir. First of all, why me? Second of all, how could anyone ever hold on? Third, could you even get up there?"

"It can't be that hard," she said as she walked around the hulking motor nearest to us and approached the spinning shaft behind it. She reached above her head, searching for a way to hoist herself up, and found a metal wheel attached to the side of the glass tube. She jumped to grip the wheel and lifted herself onto the pipe. She pointed to the shaft next to her. "Just grab this chain here and this one here," she suggested, leaning over to grasp two sturdy handholds on the machine, which had stopped moving, although neither of us realized this at the time. "Then stick your legs in these grooves, and you'd be secure enough to unfold the rest of it."

"I would never fit in those grooves," I insisted. "If you want to climb onto it, be my guest, but..."

"Alright, I will," she declared, pulling herself onto the immobile machine shaft. "I'm glad someone here is willing to do what it takes to complete our mission. Alright Mr. Gao, turn it back on! Here I go!"

I balked as the absurdity of the situation dawned on me. "It's already stopped," I observed. I turned to see Gao smiling.

"When you climbed onto that metal wheel, it turned a crank which blocked the tube," he stated serenely. "That halted the flow of protons, and as a result, there's nothing to power the motor."

Fred looked mildly disappointed that no one would be going for a spin. I was simply impressed by how quickly Gao had reverse engineered the apparatus. Gao merely had a determined look upon his face. "Let's get to work," he commanded.

From inside of his jacket, Gao produced several sheets of paper, a small bottle of ink, and several quills, all of which he handed to me. He marched up to the stalled motor, grabbed the most accessible bit of lose chain, and stretched it out. Zwitters squeeked and popped as they slid against each other and static charges were separated. He called out each individual zwitter along the length of the chain. "Glycine, aspartate, arginine, glutamine, threonine, glycine, lysine... write it down. Just the letters." I dipped a quill and began transcribing the sequence he was reading, using the individual letters that conventionally stood for each zwitter: G-D-R-Q-T-G-K. "Fred, go find another chain and read it to the Colonel while I'm fishing out the next one. We'll get it in bits and pieces, then assemble it all back together."

Thus we worked. The motor contained over a dozen chains, totaling thousands of zwitters. We needed to record each one in order, as well as a general outline of how the chains fit together, so we could construct a facsimile for ourselves. Fred and Gao dictated quickly, and I did my best to be a neat, accurate, and speedy scribe. After about an hour, my hand had begun to ache. Although Gao and Fred had made a token effort to reassemble the chains once they had read them, much of the machine now lay in loose loops on the floor like oversized noodles. We were not yet halfway done. It was clear that the chains of the shaft ran deep into the side of the mountain serving as anchors and a proton waterwheel. It would take some effort to extract them.

"Silence!" commanded Gao suddenly. Fred's recitation trailed off and we looked up at Gao perched ten feet above my head in the guts of the machine. The whir of the still-turning motors kept the room rather loud even without our voices. We strained to listen over the din.

Step. Step. The guard was approaching our building. I looked at the disemboweled machine strewn about the floor, and knew we could never hide the evidence of our presence in a timely fashion.
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