Short Story: “Steam Cycle”

What’s in your pocket? (This series of business stories on the aftermath of the Financial Meltdown started in “As Is“) 

“Steam Cycle”
(Part 7 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
(12/2/2011)

Peter Epas gazed blankly at the desert horizon while the sunbaked highway rolled back unnoticed beneath him. The mental schematics he’d busied himself with for the first few hours of the trip had given way to the hypnotic interplay of rubber against deteriorating pavement and the steady whine of the bike’s low-slung steam engine. His sightline had just drifted down to the leading tip of his shadow when the screech of a raptor overhead startled him back to wobble-wheeled alertness.

It had been first light when he headed south out of Parker that morning. Elspeth, the mechanical engineer he apprenticed under, had topped off her bike’s biopropane canister at the repair shop last night after locking up.

“You’re sure you want to do this?” she’d asked while tightening the engine mounts for the umpteenth time.

A wordless glance was all the reply he gave. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from you,” he added a few beats later, “it’s to never second-guess myself.”

Rising, she opened the cash drawer and counted out two piles of bills. The first, which sported heavily saturated pictures of dead actors, were Angels, the money issued in Los Angeles after the Dollar cratered. The oddly faded notes in the second pile were from Phoenix, and they were the reason he was headed there.

Peter thought about that second pile as he rolled on through the dusty afternoon, and wondered how the people behind them would react to his proposal. “When we first encountered your money,” he told a hypothetical banker, “it hadn’t yet started to fade. As far as we knew, it was no different from the Angels that filtered in after the Dollar crapped out.”

He frowned. “All right. How about this…” But his thoughts were abruptly shattered when the bike lurched from the impact of a wall of air at his back.

Struggling to regain his balance, he glanced over his shoulder at the noisy truck overtaking him, and, heart racing, he swerved onto the shoulder to give it a wide berth. When it swept past, he winced at the acrid smell of its exhaust.

“Yuck!” he yelled between coughs. “What kind of crap are you burning, anyway?”

As the truck dwindled ahead and he drifted back towards the center of the roadway, he ticked off a hypothetical repair order. With quality diesel being increasingly hard to come by, he figured the trucker had his rig converted to run on whatever was available, but whoever had done it was a hack. Of far more interest to Peter, however, was the fact that none of the cars and trucks he’d seen all day had the signature whine of the breed of engine powering his bike, and that brought him back to the morning’s schematics.

As engaging as that was, however, a more visceral matter soon began gnawing at his stomach, so he pulled off at the next exit to prowl for food. Back home in Parker, the majority of the restaurants he’d known as a child had closed for one of two reasons. Either their corporate supply chains had snapped, or the people who ran them left town in search of a less fragile lifestyle. Reading the epithet left on the signboard of one reminded him of Elspeth’s recent musing that the crash had forced the economy into an odd rebalancing that favored mid-size cities with food processing industries over both Metropolis and Mayberry. He rode dispiritedly past several more shuttered fast food shops before spotting the lit interior of an independent restaurant called Nate’s. He banked into the parking lot, and rolled into a spot just outside the front window. After shutting the valve on the fuel canister, he set the kickstand, unstrapped his pack from the rear fender mount, and strode towards the door.

While Peter was reaching for the handle, two men at a front table turned to look at the bike. One of them, a swarthy man in a blue work shirt, rose and started towards the door. “Hey kid!”

Unaware that he was being addressed, Peter smilingly approached the young woman behind the counter. He had just opened his mouth when she nodded towards the man crossing the floor towards them. “Is that your party?”

“My…?”

“I’m going to go out on a limb here,” the man said, extending a hand in greeting, “and guess that you’re new in town. Welcome to Phoenix. The name’s Enrique Perez. Can I buy you a drink?”

Peter glanced back at the woman. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding, “Enrique’s a regular. I think it’s your ride he’s after, though.”

“My…?”

Enrique nodded pleasantly. “She’s right. What kind of engine is that, anyway? I’ve never heard anything like it.”

“I’m not surprised,” Peter said as they reached the table, and he set his pack down. “It’s a variation on the Schoell cycle. They were only just breaking into the market when everything fell apart.”

“A what?” Enrique’s tablemate asked, the glow of intense curiosity animating the lean man’s deeply lined face.

“Oh, sorry. This is Armand. He’s a business associate.”

“Glad to meet you, sir. I’m Peter Epas. My bike is powered by a propane-powered closed-cycle steam engine. Just the thing for cruising the desert.”

“Speaking of deserts, how about that drink I offered you? What would you like? Nate’s carbonates their homegrown Arizona goji juice. Pretty good stuff.”

Peter glanced back at the cashier, who raised a glass of the red soda and grinned. “Okay,” he said, reaching for his wallet, “but I really would prefer to buy my own—.”

“And you will, just not with money,” Enrique said, signaling the cashier for a glass. “Like I said, I’m interested in that bike engine of yours.”

“All right, all right. What do you want to know?”

“Well, for one thing, where’d you get it?”

“Get it? “ Peter said defensively. “That steam-spinner’s a custom job… my boss’s design. It’s, uh, hers, actually. We built it in her shop, back in Parker.”

“I see,” Armand said slowly, crossing his arms. “And how much do you know about its construction?”

“Well, technically, I’m still her apprentice, but—.”

“I appreciate your modesty, Peter, but what I really want to know is whether you can build one yourself, here in Phoenix, given the right supplies and equipment.”

Enrique gave his associate a quizzical look.

“I could,” Peter said, lost in thought. “I mean, yes, sir. I believe I could build another engine like that. Well, assuming you could provide the tools and all. I don’t have enough money to buy—.”

“Hey!” A balding man at the table behind Armand suddenly shouted, slamming his glass on the table.

Peter followed the man’s sightline through the window, to his bike, where a guy in a dark hoodie was fingering the bright red engine.

“Christ, Silver,” baldy said, rising, “don’t you ever give up?” His chair tipped backward, but was caught by a passing waitress.

Baldy was halfway to the door by the time Peter got to his feet. By then, Silver had flipped the kickstand up and set his foot on the near pedal. Enrique trailed Peter through the door, while Armand and some other patrons turned to watch.

Silver pedaled hard while struggling against the bike’s unfamiliar heft. He glanced over his shoulder just as baldy cleared the walkway, with Peter a second behind.

“Stop!” Peter screamed.

The two men exchanged glances as they raced towards the accelerating bike. But just as they were about to catch it, Silver found his balance, switched gears, swerved onto the road, and sped away.

“Damn!” Peter said, catching his breath, “Elspeth’s going to kill me.”

“And I’m going to kill Larry Silver,” baldy said as he came up beside him, “if I ever catch him again.”

“You know who he is, then?”

“Hard not to. That cretin’s been stealing any new tech that comes into town for a while now. Works for a local cartel that’s itching to push out the leadership of the Citizen’s Board. I’m Fred Larson, by the way. I think you’ll want to join the SO, the Social Order working group, and help us get your bike back.”

“Thanks, Fred. Oh, I’m Peter Epas. Is that working group the Phoenix area police force?”

“It’s not that formal,” Enrique said, joining them. “The SO is a collaborative effort. You’ve just been robbed, so you’re welcome to join the team that does something about it. It’s expected, really, a citizen’s duty.”

As the three men approached the entrance, Peter noticed that Fred’s table had been slid up against Enrique’s, and the woman who’d greeted him earlier was distributing pens and paper. “What’s all that about?”

“Standard procedure,” Larson said, holding the door open for the others. “The first thing the SO does is collect what everyone knows about the incident. Like your friend here said, it’s a collaborative effort.”

Peter grinned as he took his seat. “And it’s a lot faster than old-style police methods, from what I hear. You folks are even faster than the group who do this sort of thing back in Parker.  How do we proceed?”

“Well, for starters,” Larson said, taking his seat, “I think we ought to find out more about that bike of yours.”

“It’s… not mine, really. Elspeth loaned it to me for this trip.”

“Must have been important to her,” Armand said. “What did you come all this way for, anyway?”

“To speak with a banker,” Peter said. He pulled out the Phoenix notes and laid them on the table. “We got these a while back, and they’ve started to fade.”

“So they have. In fact, it looks like they’re about to lose some tail-feathers. That’ll drop them to seventy-five percent of face value. It’s high time these notes were refreshed. I can see the urgency of your visit.”

“You don’t understand. It’s kind of a long way to go just to keep the money from devaluing. I came here to ask about opening a branch in Parker so we could refresh them locally. But that’s not important right now. I’ve really got to get my boss’s bike back.”

“Yes, the bike,” Larson said. “Or more to the point, that engine. I doubt Larry Silver has a clue what he’s stolen. But if he figures out how to start it up, how far could he get?”

“And how fast?” Enrique added. “Someone might have to chase him.”

“It can’t outrun a car the way it’s geared right now, if that’s what you’re worried about. And the fuel canister’s nearly empty. Well, the one that’s mounted, anyway. I have a spare in my pack for the return trip.”

“Good,” Larson said. “And that brings us to the reason I think Larry was interested in your bike, the technology in that engine.”

“You said it was a Schoell cycle?” Armand asked.

“A variation, but yeah. My boss used it as her starting point because it’s closed cycle, so you don’t have to top the water off all the time. But she made some improvements to the cooling system. That engine can run quite a bit hotter than the original design, assuming the rest of the engine can take the stress.”

“Mmm-hmm. Then I suspect it could be scaled up for heavier duty use. There’s clearly a lot of money to be made with that. If it can be replicated.”

Larson shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to see the cartel that Silver reports to get their hands on a hopped-up version of that thing. We’d never catch them. Good. I think we have enough to go on, now. So, Peter, will you be joining the SO team to find that creep and get it back?”

“Of course. But I also need to speak with the people who print up your Phoenix notes, and see if they’ll let me open a refresh shop in Parker.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that,” Armond said, chuckling.

“Why not?”

“I’m an investor. I staked them for their startup costs. Trust me, you’re a shoo-in.”

THE END

Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack

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