Wednesday 24 January 2007

The Bikes of New York, Part Eleven

The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your early bird host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Why, like a small woodland creature, does my son awake in time to anticipate the sunrise? I yawn like a giant, rub my eyes like a baby. The bags under my eyes have gone shopping. Mercy, child -- have mercy.

While I'm up we might as well continue with the story:


Luc Drapeau: father, bread-winner, cog.

He has a job at New York Yeast. There's no shame in it, despite the tell-tale odour that leeches from his skin and hair even on the sabbath. His contributions help to feed millions, his small effort a clockwork tick in a massive machinery of bacterial nutrient processing, filtering, flavouring, packaging, shipping.

The pay is a pittance.

Each day he watches a thousand petri dishes march by, each cast under the unblinking eye of the detector light that flags undesirable spores with an eerie purple glow. Luc's eyes do blink but they must blink fast, for the line waits for no man.

His lungs taste like yogurt.

Come break Luc and his colleagues loiter in a rooftop garden, clustering around the benches as they sip sour coffee or milky chai, leaning over the rails and watching the traffic crawl like lines of ants through the haze below. The sad conifers wilting in rows provide an interruption in the stink, refreshing their noses with green needle perfume, dank and sharp and foreign.

"Whatcha thinking about, Drap?"

Luc shrugs. "Nothing."

"You coming around for poker tonight?"

"Yeah, okay."

Luc turns around to refill his cup at the machine but the machine is on the fritz. Also, the blowers by the door have gone quiet. Inside, the corridor has been swallowed by shadows. The yeast workers begin to babble amongst themselves, awakened to the fact that the floor is without power. "Yo, what gives?" they ask one another.

Far below the ants have ceased to march in orderly lines. "Something's going down in the plaza," calls one of the workers, dangling his torso over the rail and squinting through the thick, shimmering air.

Like kids at play a score of workers push all at once against the southern railing, shoving each other aside amicably in competition for vantage. The railing creaks. "It's a fucking riot!" yells somebody, pointing into the plaza.

Luc looks. The ants are swirling. Like oil from water the pedestrian traffic is drawing away from the plaza, opening a wide hole around the bikes that help power the yeastworks.

The bikes are abandoned. Around them assemble two clusters of people which crystallize along a common grain like iron filings, feeding forward to clash.

"It's a war for the bikes!" shouts someone else. A shiver runs down Luc's spine.

A moment later he finds himself sprinting through the dark corridors, slamming open the door to the stairwell, whirling down the flights with his clean-room shoes squeaking on every third riser.

He bolts across the lobby, tripping the yeast contamination alarm. It dopplers away behind him as he flings open the front doors and stumbles out into the plaza, blinking against the diffuse sunlight.

The scene before him is worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

An army of Kala Kala thugs, perhaps as many as two hundred, is swarming over the face of the plaza, leaping three and four at a time upon individual bikers, pounding them down with canes, crowbars, sticks of lumber. The air is thick with cries.

The combatants rush around Luc as if he's not there. He's a ghost in a biohazard jumpsuit -- he might as well be a lamp-post or a newsfeed terminal. He's not involved.

Sirens wail in the distance, nearing quickly. Dust flies -- through it Luc hears grunts, screams, the sickening crackle of breaking bones. He's knocked to the ground by two wrestlers, observes their struggle from his new viewpoint lying between two bikes. He covers his head when they stumble over him again, tripping on the bikes and hitting the ground hard. A machete sings and one of the fighters stops moving, his opponent fleeing after casting the sweat from his brow with a bloody hand, leaving a smear of war-paint.

The sirens become more insistent. An authoritative bark is bellowing over a bullhorn, commanding people to disperse. The roiling crowd reacts as a cohesive organism, suddenly washing westward over Luc like a tide running out. He ducks behind the bikes as combatants of both stripes leap over him in a panic.

A canister of tear gas bounces to a halt a few feet away, jetting pale ochre smoke.

Now Luc is running with the herd, leaping over half-seen bikes, stumbling over fallen bodies, pumping his legs furiously to keep ahead of the wall of vapour sloshing up behind him. His eyes begin to burn and he runs faster, panting desperately, the smell stinging his nostrils and throat. Those he passes by are coughing, crying, gagging.

More tear gas canisters rain down, striking the pavement with dull thuds, hissing as they vent their cargo, spinning in place.

Luc stops and throws up the hood of his biohazard jumpsuit, sparing a moment to wonder why he didn't do it earlier. Breath comes cleaner through the masque. A split-second later he's blindsided by a cohort of terrified runners, pulling their shirts over their mouths as they stumble in random directions, red-rimmed eyes wide. Luc is thrown against a street sign pole and stars explode across his vision.

Propelled by instinct he shimmies up the pole. His clean-shoes slip on the metal but he's grabbed a hold of the sign itself, feels it bowing dangerously as he uses it to haul himself up over the fray.

Yellow smoke boils at his heels, haunted by staggering shadows.

The crowd flees to the west, separating into rivulets that worm away into the nooks and crannies of byways, bridges, shops. Luc looks back east as riot police swarm the plaza, occupying themselves with arresting the fallen, swinging truncheons and aiming tasers where they meet resistance. To the west again: Luc spots a knot of runners hemmed into an alley by a squadron of Kala Kala gangsters.

They're hunting his friends.

Luc breaks out into a cold sweat. "God help me," he whispers as he drops from the pole.

He runs toward the alley, keeping direction with his feet until he pops out of the swirling veil of tear gas. Through his visor he catches sight of the punks, a filigree of fine scratches on the plastic overlaying the image with spectral crosshairs.

He narrowly dodges a horse and carriage, slips into the alley after them accompanied by the sound of startled whinnying.

He slows as he approaches the action: Kala Kala and Les Bicyclettes Libres members skirmishing desperately, locked in hand to hand struggles over machetes. Some turn to stare at him. He remains an observer, however, ensconced inside his jumpsuit, until he peels back his masqued hood and smells the acrid fumes and tang of blood without mitigation. His heart starts to pound.

He shouts, "What is this?"

No one answers him but many fall away from their struggles to watch as he continues to plod forward. He can hear their whispers, he can smell their breath. "It's the Frenchman!" they say with shock, Kala Kala and Les Bicyclettes Libres alike. "The Frenchman's back!"

A scent of shame wafts over them. All fighting ceases. The people part before him until he finds himself looking into the eyes of Hock Aun, the son of Shaya, flanked by panting guards. Their knuckles are scraped and bloody, their chests spattered.

Luc looks down. At their feet is Dade.

He has been ruined by them. Luc can barely bear to take it in. He crouches at the man's side, cradles his battered head in his hands. "Dade," he whispers hoarsely, "Mon Dieu, Dade, what have they done to you?"

Dade is conscious. His lips work lopsidedly for a moment, then open bloodily. "Look," he croaks, his mangled face drawing into a half smile. "I knew you'd come back. I just knew."

"Yes, my friend," says Luc heavily. "I come back."

"I knew it," Dade repeats, blowing involuntary pink bubbles from beneath a flap of flesh hanging forlornly from his neck. His body quivers and tenses in Luc's arms, eyes fluttering closed as the pupils roll.

Luc gently places Dade's head back against the stained pavement. He stands up slowly, looks at the blood on his hands. He raises his gaze to meet the eyes of the son of Shaya. "You monster," he breathes. "You animal. This man, he hurt no one. Not ever, this man." A tear runs down Luc's cheek, and then another. "He is a good man," he says.

"You're a liar," retorts the son of Shaya, flashing his teeth. "A hundred of our number dead in an evening, and you have the nerve to say this is a man who never hurt anyone?"

Luc turns to the members of Les Bicyclettes Libres standing near him. He seizes Vincent's eyes, pins him. "You do this? You slaughter the Kala Kala?"

"No boss," says Vincent. "We didn't do nothing. I swear. Business as usual."

There is an unearthly silence in the alley. From the distance come the muted sounds of the police bullhorn, the warbling of ambulance sirens as they clean up the plaza. In the alley there is only the noise of Luc's clean-shoes grinding into the pavement as he turns back to the son of Shaya.

"You kill them," he says softly. He turns to the Kala Kala stalwarts. "Tell me, who disappear? The loyal or those who choose riding for Les Bicyclettes Libres?"

One of the Kala Kala boys flinches. Luc doesn't miss it. The son of Shaya sneers. "Check your bullshit at the door, Frenchman. Nobody's buying your lies. You've got blood on your hands, and you know it."

Luc looks at his hands. He looks at Dade.

Jennifer steps forward, one eye swollen shut grotesquely. "None of the ex-Kala riders showed up to bike today on my field," she says, her voice trembling.

"Not mine neither," adds Vincent.

Luc sighs, shaking his head. "How can you do it?" he demands suddenly, sharply, staring into the son of Shaya's face. "How can you do it, killing peoples of your own families? How can you look their cousins in the face and try to pin blame on a man like this?"

"This piece of shit," replies the son of Shaya, nudging Dade rudely with his boot, "deserves all that he got and more. He's your dick-sucking bitch, and you're the one who's turning them against their cousins."

"Do not touch him!" bellows Luc, his face red with rage.

The son of Shaya steps back, startled by the rancor, and looks around to take note of his stalwarts. With an uneasy hitch in his breath he notices how the space around him has widened, the members of Kala Kala now blending with the others. They're muttering. They're questioning. They're looking back to the son of Shaya with something unspeakable in their eyes.

Luc shakes his head, his lips trembling. "It is you, the monster. It is you who make this city a place to suffer. It is you who rob the peoples of their hopes and peaces. It is you who make it go on and on, on and on, never ending until the blood is everywhere, soaking us." He looks down, gulps as he weeps. "Staining us," he adds darkly. "Perverting us."

"It's your fault they died!" yells the son of Shaya.

"By your hand," says Luc. "By your hand."

The son of Shaya's face twists in anger. "Kill this prick," he commands.

Nobody moves.

"Kill him!" he repeats.

A couple of the Kala Kala members take a step backward, distancing themselves from both the son of Shaya and Luc.

The son of Shaya wheels on those closest to him, spitting as he shrieks, "Get back here, you cowards! Are you listening to the lies of this shit? Are you his fucking bitches?" His eyes burn as he swears, "You had better stand up for Kala Kala right now, or Kala Kala will slit your throats while you sleep. Kala Kala feeds you!"

"Mens feed themselves," corrects Luc. "Kala Kala kills."

No one says anything for a long moment, ragged breathing on all sides. And then, with a piteous liquid gurgle, one lone voice rises from ground level -- Dade lifts his battered face and huskily sings:

Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivee;
Contre nous de la tyrannie, l'etendard sanglant est leve.
It is a transcendent moment and the spirits of the disenfranchised punks cannot help but be elevated. One by one they step further from their master and open their own mouths to join in the song. It is picked up by the dozen or so members of Les Bicyclettes Libres, tears running down their bruised cheeks. The truest purpose of an anthem becomes clear to even the hardest hearts.

"The lust for liberty cannot be extinguish," says Luc, his gaze piercing the son of Shaya. "The more you are brutal, the more you make all mens into brothers."

And now the son of Shaya is alone, backing up against a brick wall, shaking his head, his rings glittering as his hands shake. "I'll kill you all!" he promises, the veins in his forehead pulsing. "I will never rest until every one of you is skinned and your children are my whores! This will not stand!"

Without warning he rushes at Luc, swinging wildly. Luc is punched across the face, his lip split by a ring. He staggers backward but catches himself, and when he looks up again the son of Shaya is being held tightly by two score hands, pressed prostrate into the pavement. "Why you do this?" Luc asks, aching inside. "Why cannot you accept that things have change?"

The son of Shaya screws up his face and spits on Luc.

Luc sighs. He turns away from the son of Shaya and closes his eyes. There is a pregnant pause as every man and woman watches him, holding their breath. The city itself seems to be hushed: the chaos of the plaza seems so far away. It is as if this small group of people has gathered without reference to anything, here, in this alley, to stand in the sun and hurt each other while the birds chirp.

When Luc turns back he wipes the blood and the spit from his mouth on the back of his hand. He licks his lips. The son of Shaya watches silently, features twitching with fury as Luc walks up to him, hovering over the kneeling monster with the weight of Heaven on his shoulders.

Luc narrows his eyes. He says, "Take his legs."


Teddy said...

and suddenly, luc is what he hoped he would never be. It's War Now.


Mark said...

I'm worried for Luc because he's involved again, and of course because he's become one of "them." By any chance have you read The Chocolate War? Not the movie -- it changes the ending. Anyway, it has a similar story arc (as if I really know what that term means), except that the protagonist never gets masses of people on his side.

Luc's good at thinking on his feet. I often wonder if real people are as good at that as it seems in written dialog. I suppose at least a few are, or undercover cops' on-the-job mortality rate would skyrocket. As one of those who always thinks of what he should have said, I always wonder about that aspect of written heroes.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Okay, I'm not travelling anywhere tomorrow, so the final post will go ahead as scheduled on Friday.

Dear Teddy,

That's it exactly.

Dear Simon,

Nah, I'm not feeling angry these days. Harried, yes -- stressed sometimes, yes -- but I'm in a good place. The child just robs me of energy, but he replaces it with much delight in my heart.

This I repeat like a mantra, because I was up with him at 5 AM today...which is especially nice leading up to a night when I have to stay out late schmoozing at the museum.

I think I need another coffee.

Dear Mark,

I've never read or seen it, but I think someone's mentioned it to me before.

As for thinking on one's feet: myself, I have good days (when words pour out of my mouth well-formed and poignant without effort) and my bad days (when I stammer and sweat). I wish I knew the secret that decided one way or the other.

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

Simon - When I write characters, I definitely think "hmmm, there's no way I would have thought of that so quick, or handled that situation that well, but I'm telling this guy/gal what to do, so there." I just was curious how many folks out there actually can handle themselves that well.

I think all of us who've delved into CBB's short story archive (particularly those based on real life) know that he's pretty adept.

Cheeseburger Brown said...


I think all of us who've delved into CBB's short story archive (particularly those based on real life) know that he's pretty adept.

Or, in some notable cases, not.

To my mausoleum I will take the agonizingly uncomfortable memory of being put on the spot to prove my wit when I was given an opportunity to pitch my own TV show.

If you've read the story you know how it turned out: I had nothing to say. I wallowed and fretted and sweated, and failed.

On the other hand, I once made a speech in the fourth grade and got a little trophy.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

What agony this must be for Luc. He could easily hand Hock-Aun to the police, knowing that he'll get out in a hearbeat and THEN come after him... or he can become the monster, so the monster will not break him.

As long as Shaya runs the city, the brutality will not stop and there will be no peace.

I, too, admire how quickly Luc thinks (and acts) on his feet; it's one of the great things about fictionm, and one of the many great things about CBB fiction.

Sith Snoopy said...


Whoa whoa whoa whoa!!!

Luc has gone to the Dark Side!

Brad Eleven said...

Just found this tale--and CBB--last night. Stayed up way too late, completely enthralled. Choked back tears (doing it right now in reverie) when Luc started the revolution. I gave up that futile dodge and wept openly afterwards.

I had never once pursued the meaning of the lyrics to Les Marseillaise. How beautiful, how stirring it is. Currently searching for a good recording to keep with me at all times.

Anonymous said...

Dang, I didn't even see that pun coming... though I suppose it makes sense that you, of all people, would pick up on it.

I can't totally disagree with Luc's choice, though the implementation is up for debate; this guy will never, ever stop brutalizing and murdering people. However, given the circumstances, I wonder if he should have just turned him over to his disillusioned followers...

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

Making hours disappear is one of my special if cruel delights. To me it means a story is definitely working, at least on some level.

Dear Snoopy,

Couldn't you just hear the Imperial March playing? Maybe the son of Shaya should've said, "Take my legs and your journey shall be complete!"

Dear Brad Eleven,

Welcome. Do you mind if I ask how you came across my little storyhole here?

Cheeseburger Brown