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Short Story: "Steam Cycle" (7th in a series)

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What's in your pocket? (This series on the aftermath of the Financial Meltdown started in " As Is ") 

"Steam Cycle"
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.

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"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.

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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.

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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"?"

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
 

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