[After WWI; left coast.]
Imagine a pair of leather(n) overalls, stitched thickly into a denim speedsuit. The effect is that of in-built chaps and apron, with belt-mount hardpoints, and bandolier loops ringing thigh and calf, crossing trunk. Charles Stolichnaya drags himself out of the steam tunnels, dusts off his home-made uniform, and prepares himself for another shift at the Ministry of Science.
He's essentially a janitor.
Most of his day is spent cleansing and polishing in the sub-basement assigned to Cold Metals. He looks like a robotic bug in home-made goggles--gleaming bronze bent bands retaining flashing disks of transparent aluminum, rings of cracked black cahoutec snug on his face, four leather(n) straps holding down the entire apparatus. (And butchering the haircut his long-suffering landlady gave him the other night.)
On his shoulders rest woefully underpadded canvas straps for the steam-power-pack he carries. It powers two pistons spinning a wheel to which attachments may be bolted, enhancing his work capacity. The glow of radium greens away, everywhere.
The sub-basement is vast, criscrossed with catwalks, and housing many of the Ministry's largest projects. Stolichnaya is finishing the polish job (chamois flying over brass and silver) on a collection of squat cylinders resolved into a vaguely humanoid form--"A good shape for a prototype design," sez Dr. Tesla, "because everything's gotta start somewhere." That august personage is due by after lunch to show Stolichnaya how to apply the newly-developed whalewax to the clunking automaton. (Stolichnaya has yet to develop a feel for the manifold possibilities of Leviathan Linament, and middle management has acquiesced to Tesla's desire to have a hands-on with the young janitor.)
The Ministry is developing humanoid armor for exclusively technical reasons--their goal being a specific kind of "enhancement of human capacities," a big device amplifying all a human's physical abilities seemed pretty natural. Plus, tanks, cranes and planes all prove to have control interfaces which are surpassingly daunting. It is theorized that a tool that walks and grips like a woman might be easier to operate.
Not that they've found an operator yet. "Gibbering madness" is too strong a description for the reaction of the candidates to being encased in the HollowMan, but at the very least everybody's been pretty creeped out. If your heart seemed replaced by wheezing bladders, your joints now grinding gearwork, bowels filling with cinder and ash, you might well be prone to bad vibes.
It takes Charles Stolichnaya metric forever to get to work in the work in the morning. He's got to ride his high-wheeled bike thru the steam tunnels connecting Long Shore City with Coast Hill City. Sheer distance combines with the rudely paved streets and his tendency to dawdle. Luckily, he's got plenty of his time, because he has, in the parlance of a later era, no life.
Two years earlier, he'd ridden his bike from Gorge City, where he could no longer afford to study, nearly all the way to Queen City, where he'd been spawned, abandoned. Alas, his ordinary had juddered itself (in)to pieces, and he'd hopped trains the rest of the way to Coast Hill City. His half of an engineering degree got him in the door at the Ministry, but he's not yet worked his way up to bottlewasher.
He lives in the Breadfan Arms, a SRO built over the Four Winds Bar, a long brown rundown drive that Stolichnaya can barely afford to set foot in. Of a saturday, he'll ramble downstairs to wash dishes for the cook and sneak pitchers of porter, an engagement comprising the whole of his social life apart from the Ministry.
He'll start his saturday by waking up, still in his homemade speedsuit, strip, and pad down the hallway to the water closet. Washing by hand, he buckles the 'suit over the swingarm of the casement window to let it hangdry all afternoon. Most of his day, he'll sit on the floor, leaning against his bed, reading shoplifted pulps, or scribblesketching on one or another paper bag. A foul cigar's rarely far. Push-ups, masturbation. Staring out the window.
His writing is a multi-layered collage* of memories, plans, and dreams. In turn: (1) the Latvian exodus he hardly retains, the unspeakable blandness and emotional aridity of his Queen City childhood, his two years at sea, his two years of college, his tramp time in the before-now. (2) Bikes, mostly, but sundry airships, pencils that sharpen themselves, an updated sporran, some way to carry a music hall in your pocket. (3) Sex, mostly--Charles hasn't had sex since college, and even that had been a meager ration compared to his time at sea.
Like most young men who've been on their own for half a decade, Stolichnaya feels himself rather old, swathed in responsibility, affecting resignation until it's internalized enough to expel the disappointment that this...apparently, is all there is. Obviously he inclines a little toward the humorless.
So though he'd love--love--to break off a zesty piece, he won't really attempt. The rationalization being that he's too broke and bearded to attract a reasonable female, and too drunk and tired of the scene to go and rent a woman. (His self-involvement is such that it won't occur to him that he lives in a large, alienated urban surround, likely chock-full of women as lonely, lovely, and longing as himself. Why, it's likely that in his very own SRO building, there's a young poetess nursing a similar set of hedges against connection, similar ambivalences with respect to intimacy...) His buddy Potatoes, the cook at Four Winds Bar, has him doing experiments, though, with not-masturbating, and trying to get in touch with that infernal unfocused energy which results.
Potatoes tends to blow Stolichnaya's mind. This is a worldage still not quite adapted to dada, while Potatoes seems already to have read everything and discarded most except in the ways he can juxapose it. He's a seriously unhandsome man--scraggly beard, implausibly thin and rather clumsy, sundials for nose and adam's apple, zero chin, awful bangs over a forehead not quite symmetrical. Dresses like color-clashing is the toll he pays to get on Handjob Highway, heading toward Bustanut City.
But he's read everything, and doesn't seem to mind talking about any of it. He's got a disconcerting habit of rehearsing an argument before marshalling aught against it, but Solichnaya kinda likes it, finds the ebb and flow compelling and soothing. Plus it's sorta cool how Potatoes doesn't mind doing all the work in a conversation.
*Yes, I know the word palimpest.