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Chock full of clever ideas and wry wit, Gerald Weinberg's Mistress of Molecules
explores the forces that bind chemicals, societies--and people. A fun, thoughtful read. - Steven Mohan, Jr., Author
What I love most about the best science fiction is that it can be read on (at least) two levels: the surface story, and the underlying manifesto. Mistress of Molecules fulfills that definition of science fiction in spades. Recommended. - Michael Hunter, Blogger
MISTRESS OF MOLECULES: sample chapters
(You may print these pages for more convenient reading.)
Before the instant I launched my crocus-laden balloon plane, I had never doubted that I was my father's daughter. Now, parked in Clifton Plaza waiting for its return, my body, and my confidence, shook with fear. Nicolas Valois never feared anything. He had been solid as one of the Star Chamber's marble pillars, even as he'd stood before the Pope to receive his death sentence.
Although I was not yet born at the moment my father's molecules were disassembled and scattered, I know my father quite well. The vid of his show trial is part of the school curriculum. I have watched it hundreds of times.
Father was smarter than anybody in the Church. He must have known the Church would distribute the vid as moral lessons for the unfortunate inhabitants of our poisonous planet. So he used the trial, the vid, to communicate his own moral lessons, not to everyone, but only to me, his unborn daughter.
The Ministers caught Father with a kilo of crocus—less than my balloon plane now carried. They kept him out of public view for twenty-one days, no doubt torturing him until they placed him on public trial before our Pope. His Holiness served as judge, jury, and prosecutor. Sitting in full regalia—gold-trimmed purple chasuble over ivory alb and stole, a tall gold mitre decorated with seven purple crosses—he asked Father whether he had stolen the crocus.
Father stood tall and proud, though bruised, chained hand and foot, and dressed in baggy, wrinkled, orange prison clothing. "No, sir, I did not steal it."
After I had watched the vid a dozen times, I noticed the Pope flinching slightly when Father refused to address him as "Your Holiness," as was required of everyone in the court. I had seen a bailiff begin to move toward Father, probably to chastise him for this breach, but a wave of the Pope's finger motioned him away.
"Then you bought it?" asked the Pope.
"No, sir, I did not buy it."
"Then you smuggled it, perhaps from Earth?" The Pope looked down to check his console. "The record shows that you recently visited Earth."
"Yes, sir, I did. I was sent by my employer, the Telenergy Corporation."
"And upon returning from that trip, you smuggled the crocus from Earth?"
"No, sir, I did not. As far as I know, there is no crocus on Earth. Their air is not poisonous like ours, so Earthers have no need for it."
That statement, I knew, was a key part of his message to me.
The Pope continued. "So you know where all the crocus is in the galaxy?" He smiled knowingly for the audience, having put this arrogant criminal in his place.
"Everyone knows, sir, that crocus exists in only two places: here on Precursor, and on the Zgaarid home world, wherever that may be. I have never been there, nor has any other human, to my knowledge."
"And just how do you possess this vast knowledge of galactic affairs?"
"By logical deduction, sir. If the Zgaarid did not have a monopoly on crocus, and if the Church and the corporations could not use crocus to control our people, then we would not be held in docile slavery. But since we are no more than miserable slaves, the monopoly must exist. Why else would your church make it a crime to distribute a life-saving substance?"
"Hah." You could hear the smirk in the Pope's voice. "There, young man, you display even more ignorance. Even little children know that slavery is forbidden by the Church. That the Holy Church is your father protector, dedicated to your welfare and the welfare of your immortal soul."
"You would have to be a little child, sir, to believe that falsehood." Another message to me, I'm sure.
The Pope waved his hand dismissively. "Enough of your nonsense. If you did not steal the crocus, and you did not buy it, and you did not smuggle it, … " He rolled his eyes heavenward. " … then how did you obtain it?"
Father followed the Pope's gaze toward the ceiling. "God gave it to me, sir."
The Pope turned red and angrily banged his gavel on the bench. "That will be enough. Bailiff, gag the prisoner. And Clerk, you will now add blasphemy to the list of charges."
Before the bailiff could insert the gag, Father shrugged his shoulders and said, softly, "Fortunately, you can only murder me once."
Those were Father's last words before his body was disassembled into its component molecules. I know they were a message to me. They could only kill him once, but others would carry on his work. Others like me.
And what was that work? Again, that was clear from his testimony, though everybody else was too blind to see it. If he hadn't bought, stolen, or smuggled the crocus, he must have made it, which is what he meant when he said that God gave it to him. That is, God gave him the power to do chemistry, to make molecules. Molecules like crocus would free our world from both human and Zgaarid slavery.
Perhaps in another age, Father's ability to synthesize crocus would have been obvious to everyone. By now, however, humans had become so intimidated by Zgaarid technology that nobody even attempted to create things. Yes, there were people called chemists—my father was one, after all—but they were all simply technicians trained to operate pre-defined Zgaarid processes.
All, that is, except Father.
And, of course, me. The coward.
I shouldn't have been afraid, waiting for my balloon plane. I knew Minister Jackson of the Clifton ministers would probably show up on his usual beat and question why I was parked here, so there was no logical reason why my stomach clenched when he pulled up alongside my battered old Fargo. Perhaps I was nervous because after a lifetime of preparation, today's plane flight was to be the first step in carrying out Father's vision.
I knew Ben Jackson would ask what I was doing sitting there breathing the polluted outside air at six on a bright-morning. I was prepared, so this whole caper should have been much safer than making nitro in my lab, but I couldn't keep my hands from shaking. I hadn't figured on the shakes.
Though I was over sixteen and legally entitled to be out through the entire dark-day, I had dressed in a rather childish, pink party dress. I wanted to look like a more vulnerable girl out after a late dark-night date, looking for someone to father a child and earn her first birth-bonus. Minister Jackson had been Father's friend, and he hadn't renounced their friendship even after Father was disassembled. But he never believed Father was making his own chemicals, because nobody had done that for three generations since the Zgaarid showed up with their advanced technologies. Even back on Earth, and that was the only place where human-use chemicals were still manufactured. Everything we synthesized here on Precursor was for export to the Zgaarid, perhaps for sale to other species in their trading network, though some of the products could be used for human purposes, too.
Jackson had always been protective of me, maybe more because of snitch's guilt than ministerial duty, so I figured he'd cut me some slack. As he walked over, I did my best to look like a fatherless little girl, not ready to breed, and needing a minister's protection and consolation.
"Well," he said, with mock surprise in his voice. "Good morning, Libra. Or is it still good evening?"
"Hi, Ben," I sparkled at him, knowing I would have to satisfy his curiosity before he would move on. "It's still 'good evening'—though it wasn't as good as I hoped."
"I'm okay," I said, trying to sound as if it wasn't quite true. "I was at a party in Center. A guy … " I could make myself blush, but I didn't think I needed to. "… well, you know how guys can be. So I wanted to sit here a while and think a bit before going home to take care of Mom."
Ben Jackson knew my mother, too. He had helped her settle in after she arrived here on precursor to find her husband no longer existed. Mentioning Ma was carefully calculated to remind him that it wasn't very nice for a young girl to be saddled with a widowed mother who everyone in Clifton knew to be an alcoholic 'tardy. And everyone said I would be better off if Marianne could only pull herself together, and wasn't it a shame that her brain had been damaged when she quilted over from Earth. And that I was too young to have to work all the time to support her—that I should be out having fun and looking for a man with suitable genes who still had viable sperm.
I could see that Minister Ben was likely to be thinking all those thoughts. How serious I was. How it was only natural that I wanted to be alone once in a while. Or have a little fun—but not like some of those other kids he had to deal with, messing around with psychems, getting in all kinds of trouble, then having their parents come down to Church and bail them out. So I gave him a few moments, then said, "It's all right, isn't it Reverend Jackson, to park here? I mean, it's not immoral to use the parking lot, is it? I was just a little afraid to park on the street all alone."
I motioned to the two other parked cars. "I mean, the bakers are inside working already, so I thought it would be safe."
"Sure, honey. You can just sit here as long as you like. And nobody's going to harm you as long as I'm around, you can count on that."
I knew this was true. Nobody in Clifton—not even gang members—would dare to face a Minister's firepower. But right now, I preferred to be alone. My balloon plane had enough fuel to circle for at least two hours. And it would be light even before then.
Alone in Boss's car, Manny was glad it was early, and dark—not that much light ever penetrated Precursor's cloud cover even during bright-noon. Dark or light, there was no way he would allow his boys to see how nervous he was as he wheeled his car across Bridge 214. If this slag dump island had a name, he couldn't think of it. Just "Bridge two-one-four," the only way on or off unless you were willing to risk a boat in the sludge Precursor called water.
But there was already more than enough risk for Manny. Ordinary missions—heists, intimidation, assassination—never made him feel this way. He wasn't afraid of killing, and never thought of the possibility of being killed. He was untouchable, but this job was different. Full of unknown quantities.
Manny was clever enough to imagine some of the possibilities, which was why Boss chose him as point man. He was proud of that, but even Boss hadn't been smart enough to know who had sent the package. That might be the hardest part of his job, finding out who was behind the package, but someone had to do it. Anyone who was cunning enough to lay his hands on that much pure crocus was someone to be reckoned with.
The plain package had contained a full kilo of the orange powder, enough to provide hope of long life for ten-thousand sick workers for a month. Wholesale, it was worth $100,000 cache—cache because it could never be sold for traceable money—cash. Retail, it would bring five times that much. Maybe more, because everybody knew crocus, like most human biologics, could not be manufactured on Precursor and had to be smuggled through the Quilt—which was not easy with the Zgaarid controlling the trade.
The note in the package had asked for $10,000 cache, a modest price indeed. Of course, Boss knew he could just keep the goods and chalk up a pure profit, but if this "Joe Green" really had a source, it wouldn't pay to settle for a mere kilo. Besides, Green might start dealing with someone else, which could cut into business. And so, Manny thought, as he patted the bundle of tens and twenties on the seat beside him, he had better come out of here knowing everything he could about this mysterious Joe Green. When he did, Boss would think the ten thou cache had been well spent, and Manny would be rewarded.
He pulled into the dump and watched the faint shadows for any movement in the dim light ahead of the car. Although he couldn't make out anybody else among the slag mounds, he knew that Jack and Randy had been discreetly parked near the dump entrance for the past twenty-two hours, ever since dark had begun. If anyone had arrived but departed, Jack and Randy would have reported it.
Later, as soon as Manny gave the electronic signal that the pickup had been made, his boys would tail the next vehicle that drove out. And, in case the first one was a decoy, Zig and Sammy had parked outside the dump an hour ago, to back them up.
Manny was a planner. He had covered all the bases. If Joe Green or his messenger arrived by boat, Cap and the rest of his crew were holding the launch just offshore, but out of sight. The potential here was too big to take chances. If Joe Green really had a wide open source, Boss had to control it.
Boss himself, of course, would be arriving at Mass just about this time. Joe Green had done his research, scheduling the drop early in the bright-morning. Boss liked to have at least two ministers and a gaggle of pious women to provide an alibi whenever anything risky was taking place elsewhere. It was a piece of professional courtesy for Joe Green to fit Boss's schedule. It showed respect. In this business, respect was important.
It also showed that Green was a pro, and a pro would expect to be tailed. And would make provisions to shake the tail. Manny's job was to follow instructions to the letter—both Green's and Boss's. He only hoped that they wouldn't be contradictory. Manny liked to think of himself as a pro, too, but he despised contradictions.
He reached the designated spot—the flattened mound of purplish lumps the size and shape of human ears—without seeing anyone else in the dump. Not that he expected to, at this hour on a bright-morning, but you never knew. Besides, there was an almost infinite number of hiding places among the poisonous slag mounds.
Manny scanned the mounds, not really expecting to see anything. He couldn't even make out the true colors of any that were more than ten meters away. It occurred to him, then, that Green might not try to take the money out at all, but just wait in the dump until there was enough traffic to cover his exit. If bright-morning had fully dawned by then, the cloud-penetrating satellite scans should show all the comings and goings. Still, Manny would remain alert on the ground. Any tiny clue might be as useful as following someone right out of the dump. There weren't that many possible Joe Greens to eliminate.
The note's instructions had been disturbingly simple.
Have the money securely tied up in a ration box—in tens and twenties cache.
Stop the car by this purple waste mound.
Get out of the car.
Wait for further instructions, exactly five meters north of the mound.
Manny checked his shoulder holster and his ankle backup just in case. If this whole thing was a minister trap and he was caught carrying, he was out of luck. But Boss couldn't imagine the Church sparing a full kilo of crocus for a trap, and Manny trusted Boss. Generally, the ministers kept one eye closed to the illicit crocus trade, as long as there was nothing too obvious or the price became too competitive. Too many people would stop working for the corporations if they could get their life-saving drugs elsewhere.
He checked the time on his implant, adjusted his nasal filters against any particularly noxious fumes, then lifted the box and popped open the side of the car. After making one inspection tour around the car, he checked the time again. Five minutes to six. Exactly on plan. He placed the box on the car's collision shield, popped a scrubber in his mouth, and activated it with saliva. He had a feeling that Joe Green would not be late. He wanted his mind perfectly clear.
At one minute to six, he sucked the scrubber one last time, then spit it out and circled the car once more. He felt that something had changed, but he couldn't pin down what it was. The sun's greenish light was beginning to crack the horizon, but he could see nothing in any direction. Still, the feeling grew. What had changed?
If everything went well, my plane could have been returning any time. I had to get rid of Ben Jackson. Quickly, but without arousing suspicion. Even fully loaded with $10,000 in small cache, it would be quiet, but maybe not quiet enough. It wouldn't land until I activated the command button hidden in my bra, but I wanted to get it down before the markets in the Plaza opened and too many people were milling around. The plane might be small enough, and perhaps silent enough, so it wouldn't be noticed by eager shoppers, but I didn't want to take any unnecessary chances. I needed to get rid of my self-appointed guardian, and quickly.
I decided a little embarrassment should do the trick, aided by my repellant pheromone. I dabbed my left pinkie with a drop of saliva to activate the scent, then waved it under his nose as I leaned out the window and gave him a daughterly kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Reverend Jackson. Thank you for everything. Sometimes things are pretty difficult for a girl, you know."
The kiss and the chemical had the desired effect, as I knew they would. Most Ministers, popular though they might be as breeding studs, were prudes—in public anyway, in uniform. They were afraid of losing their jobs, which sure as heck beat slavishly following Zgaarid chemical procedures in one of the factories.
He shuffled backwards, quickly looking around to see if anybody had seen the kiss. It was still too dark to be sure, but I thought he was blushing. "That's all right, honey," he stammered. "I'm just doing my job, so you just stay here as long as you like. I've got some other people to protect and console. I'm sure you'd rather be alone anyway."
I decided to toy with him. I know I shouldn't do that, but I never can resist teasing men. They think they're so powerful, so in control, especially the ones with top gene scores, which most of the ministers had, given the protected environments of their churches. But that arrogance makes me so angry at the same time it makes them so easy and tempting to tease. "Oh, no. I'd love to have you stay and console me, as long as you'd like."
But he had already retreated to his patrol vehicle and opened the door. "I really have to go now. Say hello to your mother for me."
"I will. And say hello to everyone at Church for me." I knew he would certainly tell all his colleagues at Church about me, going over the story once more about how Father had been an irresponsible fool to think he could smuggle chemicals and not be caught. How he'd been one of those troublesome cases who couldn't withstand the reprogramming so had to be disassembled, and now his daughter was suffering for it. How maybe one of them should get busy and give me a baby, so I'd have some income to ease the suffering.
Well, it hadn't been all suffering, and I didn't need any birth-bonus. I had a paying job, even though it paid less than I would get for three babies. Better than that, the ministers had left Father's lab intact, not even believing such a place could exist. So, I had a playroom filled with equipment and a fair number of supposedly harmless precursors. It wasn't hard to convince 'tardy Ma not to sell any of it, and to stay out of the lab when she was home, so I had free rein for my own experiments. And the ministers needed no convincing that two mere women were no threat to the corporations.
Well, their blind spot was good cover for me, so I couldn't complain, but as I sat there waiting, I couldn't help reflect that maybe somewhere there's a man who didn't think he was master and commander of all women in the universe. No, I decided, not if he was raised on Precursor. There couldn't be a worse planet for women in the entire Zgaarid galaxy.
Though I was named for Brother Andre, the faith healer who encouraged his followers to accept their suffering, I could never accept mine. Much of my early boyhood on Gemariah is an undifferentiated fog, spent as it was in Perfective Solitude. The Lock, however, stands out clearly, for it was my first real teacher. My mind holds many sharp pictures of The Lock, arranged in the chronological order my developing brain constructed them. Earliest, of course, was the burnished gray metal interior faceplate. Only the faceplate was visible to the untrained eye of a three-year-old with nothing more interesting to do than study it. Not to study for purposes of escape. Not yet. Simply because The Lock anchored the doorway to the forbidden world outside my Perfective Solitude cell.
By age four, my passion to understand how things worked was already well developed, and I already knew every line and scratch of the faceplate. By five, I understood that though the lines and scratches contained innumerable patterns of interest, none provided the slightest clue to opening the forbidden door. I don't recall exactly when I understood, but by five, certainly, because by then I was already far advanced in my vocal mimicry, a skill that would later become one of my most useful tools.
Memorizing the key phrase was easy enough. It was, naturally, taken from the Holy Scriptures, which I had already memorized before I even knew how to read. Before I was even supposed to know there was even such a thing as reading. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Although I was already a good mimic, I failed to realize that my juvenile voice could never hope to capture my father's bass pronunciation. Only on rare occasions did Mother control the lock, so I was perhaps six before I put aside my futile efforts to mimic my father's voice. Mother used a different key phrase—also Scriptural, of course—but her squeaky voice was well within my boyish range. Only a few months of incessant practice were required to put the lock under my control.
The first time I succeeded with my new skill, my father was unable to believe that a mere child could conquer the Perfective Solitude Interdictions placed by the Holy Church of Yahweh's Tender Touch. He assumed that Mother had neglected to lock my cell door, earning her Yahweh's tender touch with my father's cane—the worst beating I had yet been allowed to witness. For my own good, of course.
My own beating—for taking three tentative but forbidden steps into the hall—was much less severe, though severe enough that I made no further excursions unless my parents were away.
Fortunately for my education—as opposed to my schooling—they were often away on church business. Whole days, sometimes weeks, at a time. By age eight, when my own church responsibilities began, I knew every detail of every object in our tiny house. I knew exactly where it was placed, how it was oriented, and even the dust patterns that had to be restored when it was moved for my examination. Not that Mother would ever allow dust to accumulate on anything my father could see. She may not have been as devout as my father, but she was devout enough to avoid unnecessary torture for the sin of slovenly housekeeping.
She was also heretic enough to know which hidden nooks were unlikely ever to be examined with my father's white glove. To refurbish the undisturbed pattern for these areas, I collected my hidden cache of dust—always accumulating in my cell. Looking back, I wonder where the dust came from. Gemariah, at least where we lived, would have been a desert without irrigation from the mountain snows, but with no window and an always-locked door, how did the dust get inside?
Yet somehow the dust accumulated. No need for white gloves, either. With the only furnishings being a hard cot, a straight chair, and an extractor, any dust I missed was always visible grounds for punishment. So, the Lock taught me to be meticulous in my personal habits—not from the Holy Church's admonitions about cleanliness, but from Mother's sin of slovenliness. I was convinced that this slight taint on Mother's soul was the genetic origin of my own heresy. Certainly, there was no such taint on my father's side of the family. My father, like his father and his father's father, was a Minister.
Part of his duties as Minister, over and above enforcing the Law, were to maintain a collection of banned books so he could learn to recognize the various Heresies in their infinite forms. Opening the collection's physical lock was child's play, but since I'd never learned to read, the contents of the books remained locked to me for several years. The pictures, most of them, I grasped immediately, but the words, even the letters, were strings of mysterious, meaningless, patterns to my untrained mind.
My first break was the letter O. It reminded me of the glyph on my Console—Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail—meaning "repeat the lesson." Of course, Ouroboros was the embodiment of filth—not just touching its nether parts, but touching them with its mouth—but that was appropriate. Only the poor student—the filthy, unclean, unhealthy student—would lack the concentration and religious dedication to memorize the lesson in a single presentation. So, whenever I happened to touch the O, my Teacher would punish me by chanting, in that blaming tone Teachers do so well, "O-ro-bo-ros. O-ro-bo-ros." Mouthing the word, I could hardly miss the association of shape and sound.
Looking at my description, I realize that this learning process sounds too easy. It wasn't. Nothing on Gemariah was easy, even the things you were supposed to be doing.
"Labor is pure." Growing up, I heard this admonition a hundred times from Mother. A thousand times from my father. A million times from my Teacher, my virtual friend in the Console in my wall. More important, it was written in gray letters on the translucent white glass of the oculus above the altar in the Church. Eventually—I think it took months, but I had nothing but time—I figured out that the "bor" sound in "la-bor" was the same as the sound in "Orob-bor-us." I had strayed off the strait and narrow way to virtue, treading the crooked path to sin through reading.
The pictures and diagrams helped immensely, because I knew the names of things mentioned. "Bed" led me to isolating the "b" sound, which led me to "ball" (not that I had a ball to play with, but I often had to "follow Teacher's bouncing ball.") The difference between "ball" and "bed" provided the idea of vowel sounds, and "ball" and "hall" and "wall" taught me a couple of new consonants.
By the age of nine, I could make out the sounds of many new words, though irregularities in some of the old spelling led to embarrassing mispronunciations later in life. But, at the time, my reading was of necessity silent. Hence, I learned the physics of levers, fulcrums, and loads without knowing that "load" was a one-syllable word, with a silent "a."
But pronunciation didn't matter. I could actually test what the book said about mechanical advantage without knowing how to pronounce the "ch." And test I did. I could indeed move heavy objects—like my steel bed—by creating a class one lever with a short arm and a long arm separated by a fulcrum. With a class two, I could crack my hard nutritional biscuits without risking my teeth or soaking them in my water ration. Cracking them was essential if I wanted to avoid biting into an occasional burrowing mealworm.
The Holy Church of Yahweh's Tender Touch teaches its followers that all strength came from health, and all health came from faith and purity. But physics taught me that some strength came from thought, and faith had nothing to do with it. Physics had cracked my faith, just the way it had cracked my biscuits.
It was only a crack, though. Before I was ten years old, some articles of faith were so firmly set that they couldn't be cracked by books. I read about how babies were made, but I simply couldn't believe it. If women didn't have a "thing" down there, how could they use the extractor? Without the extractor, they would fill up with urine until they exploded and died. No, I wasn't to unlock the truth about women until much later, when I served my time in the seminary.
Unlock. Oh, yes, I was describing my father's locked collection. One of my greatest discoveries was a book on circuit theory and electronic systems. Studying this tome during long Church weekend retreats allowed me to form my third picture of the interior of The Lock—a circuit diagram. Actually, it was a collection of homeomorphic circuit diagrams—all logically equivalent to the black box observer that I, born in sin, was condemned to be.
But I keep getting ahead of myself. I've given a glimpse of my early education, the origin of some of my personal tools, but I haven't really explained why I needed these tools. For that, I will first have to explain about the uniquely human church disease that infected Gemariah, our isolated agricultural planet in our isolated arm of the galaxy.
TO BE CONTINUED (ORDER THE FULL STORY BELOW)
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