The Bikes of New York is a science-fiction novella of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your hurried host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I woke up slow and I'm late for work.
So, without ado, let's get right on to our tale:
Luc Drapeau shows up for work on Wednesday morning, a winning employment lottery chit clutched in his hand. When he rubs his fingers against the papery plastic he can feel the thin strands of data fibres woven inside. The address winks above a small square of map, guiding him here, to the Sewage Pumping Station at Avenue D and East Thirteenth.
His name is called: "Drapow, Luck!"
In a grimy green changeroom he strips off his suit pants and shirt, folds them carefully into a rusty, cubical locker that smells like mildew, then takes a sanitation jumpsuit from the row of hangers. The jumpsuit smells considerably worse than mildew.
He is paired up with a veteran of the job to learn the ropes. Her name is Rosie. They ride down together in a rickety elevator. Rosie also smells considerably worse than mildew. "Wanna chaw?" she asks, offering over a greasy tin of spit tobacco.
"No thank you," says Luc.
"Suit yaself," she says breezily, expectoring a string of brown swill on the floor. "But it helps."
The elevator settles with a lurch and the door grinds open, admitting a wall of eye-watering stench. Luc gags reflexively. Rosie chortles. "Told ya," she says, punching his arm in a friendly way. "That'll put some hair on ya chest, huh?"
"Jesu," croaks Luc.
They pull up their hoods and secure their breathing masques, the air inside rubbery and close, the filters only mildly successful in cutting the stink. They draw on gloves and toggle the lamps on their foreheads, the dim, amber beams illuminating vapours swirling up by the low ceiling.
He follows Rosie's bobbing light down the tunnel. She raises her masque intermittently to hork into the shadows. "Come on, slowpoke," she calls, her coarse voice muffled and alien. "Shit don't wait for no man."
They descend a ladder to a landing where a gang is at work trawling a river of filth for settled solids or sources of potential blockage. They wade into the mire with nets, hooks and scoops. The quarry seems to come in bursts and now, in a lull, the workers hop up to sit on the edge of the platform, pools of unspeakable mud collecting around their backsides in stringy clods and runny rivulets. "Rosie!" they call. "How the hell are ya?"
"Got a greener," she grunts, nodding at Luc.
"Hi," says Luc.
"Strong stomach on you there, bub?" asks a husky fellow as he pushes up his masque to shove a wad of spit tobacco into his mouth.
Luc shrugs. "It's okay, my stomach."
The husky fellow snickers. "We'll see, huh?"
"Aw, leave him alone, Donny," says Rosie, spitting into the underground river. "It ain't like he asked to be here."
"Shit Rosie," replies the husky fellow. "Nobody asks to be here. I mean, shit, woman -- nobody except you."
They all guffaw. Donny, the husky fellow, kicks his boots playfully in the rancid water for a moment and then casts his headlamp upstream. Rosie follows his gaze. She squints, her eyes penetrating the dark in a way Luc's cannot. "There's a nice piece of incoming right there," she declares. "Let's get lively."
The work is hard, and awful.
When we were kids this is the kind of thing that would've been handled automatically with sluice filters, dehydration vats, timed settling tanks and chemical treatments. In the old days some bored fool would sit with his feet up on a desk, watching gauges and reading the newspaper until something beeped. Before the fuel crisis this was the drudgery of robots and untouchables, not men.
The objects of their attention are dumped in various chutes according to composition, the art of diagnosis imparted in dribs and drabs by Rosie as examples present themselves. "Smell that funk? That's the ammonia. That goes right in the yogurt tank for breakdown. Now that, on the other hand, is a log of good old fashioned human crap. Send that to chute two for bio-reclamation."
Luc sighs, catching his breath from retching. "The whole island's waste is sorted like this?"
"Shit no," replies Donny, scooping up something indescribable and flinging it into the mouth of a chute behind him. "This is just the stuff the boys upstream missed. This, bub, is what you call fucking quality control."
They take another break as the river runs comparatively clean for a spell. Up topside the day is wearing on and the air coming through the ventilators is getting hotter, the occasional puff of humid breeze carrying smells like perfume, perspiration and charcoal. Luc catches a sweet glimmer of these saner scents as he pushes up his masque to mop the sweat from his face. "It's hot," he pants.
"It ain't nothing no hot now," warns skinny Miguel, leaning on his hook. "Just you to wait and to see, my friend."
Luc waits. Luc sees. An hour passes and the air becomes a visible miasma, tendrils churning in the soft cones of their headlamps. It is hard to breathe. Luc's ventilator has begun to smell like cheese. His arms ache as he hoists his scoop to snag a loop of knotted cabling. He grunts wearily as he flings it to the chute.
Moisture beads on his masque, fogging the glass.
The gang have all unzipped their jumpsuits and peeled them down to the waist, working bare-chested with sweat running off them like rain. They glisten in the dark as they shout lewd jokes to one another, guffawing, swearing, pausing to spurt tobacco juice. They stand in the river like fishers. They know each other well.
Donny stands in front to catch first. He has his back to everyone, a matted carpet wall of flesh. He calls out, "Poker at Lee's?"
"Shut up," Lee calls back. "I'm tired of cleaning up after you assholes. You barfed on my fucking couch, Don."
"Yeah," giggles Skinny Miguel as he hucks a wad of faeces into the chute. "That was gross, Donny."
Donny grunts. "Fuck you all."
Luc is dizzy. He raises his masque to take a less obstructed breath, gags as his throat recoils from the putrice. He stumbles sideways and plows into Rosie, his face suddenly smeared between her heavy, tattooed breasts. She catches him in her beefy arms and heaves him effortlessly back to his feet. "Ya getting panky on me or just losing your shit, boyfriend?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," mutters Luc, tasting her sweat on his mouth.
He leans into the edge of the platform as he pulls his masque down and gratefully gasps in a few humid breaths through the cheesy filter. He coughs. The untreated air has left his lungs feeling scorched.
They're all watching him.
Luc looks up slowly. "I'm okay," he claims.
"Hup-hup, bubs!" calls Donny. There's material on the way. He settles into his ready stance and so does the rest of the gang. Skinny Miguel takes a couple of prepatory swipes at the water, his pimple-scarred back flexing.
Islets of curdled foam drift out of the tunnel and pass between them, leaving yellowish crusts on their hipwaders. Next comes an armada of rotting apple chunks surrounded by squadrons of dead bees. Lee slaps them out of the water by the dozen, their tiny bodies skittering across the concrete landing.
"How's the new girlfriend working out, Skinny?"
Miguel shrugs. "She isn't to let me do it, Donny. I ask, I ask. She still say no."
"I got something you can give her to make her let you," offers Donny. "You just put it in her drink, bub."
"No, I wait until she is to let me for okay to do."
Donny snorts. "You're a homo."
"Fuck ya," contributes Rosie as she rolls her eyes. But Donny isn't listening: he's leaning forward, squinting into the tunnel. Rosie takes a step forward, craning her head. "What's up?"
Donny looks back over his hairy shoulder. "A pretty bit of incoming." He grins, his teeth brown with tobacco. "I'm letting it go to the new guy. Ready up, bub?"
"What is it?" asks Luc.
Donny keeps his beam off it as it comes by him. Lee pans his head along to catch a glimpse of the lumpy shadow and then flinches away. "Oh, man," he groans. "Special delivery."
"What is it?" Luc asks again.
Skinny Miguel steps aside silently, eyes darting back and forth between his colleagues and the incoming. He looks over at Luc with a funny smile pinching the edges of his eyes, visible only fleetingly as the thick air blows thicker between them.
Luc looks down, his headlamp slicing the gloom.
It's a baby.
He can't control himself. He scampers away reflexively, flailing his arms and then tumbling backward beneath the surface. He feels like he's been hit in the chest. He struggles for air against his masque, then tears it from his face and sputters on the pure, uncut swill.
Rosie pulls him out by the hair and the first thing he sees is the purpled infant body bobbing in the disturbed wake by his hips. "Jesu!" cries Luc, scrambling up onto the platform and collapsing against the stinking, streak-stained concrete. "Tabernac!"
The gang is laughing. They rock back and forth, helpless. Donny's husky frame jiggles as he slaps his thigh. Rosie leans against Lee, red in the face with mirth but then suddenly sober as she spots the incoming on its way out. "Don't lose it, you dipshits!" she bellows. "Look alive!"
Miguel surges after it, swinging with his hook. Luc doesn't want to watch but he finds he cannot turn away. On his third attempt Miguel snags it, right before the grate. In one smooth motion he picks it up and casts it flying to the chutes.
To Luc's horror he misses, and the waterlogged body bursts apart against a concrete bulkhead, dropping to the platform in a series of dense splatters.
The gang roars with laughter.
Luc vomits. He cannot stop. He gags and retches on his own bile while quaking on his hands and knees on the hard landing, afraid to look away from his own mess lest he see something worse, afraid to close his eyes because what happened is still burning in the afterimages. "Mon dieu," he whispers hoarsely, "mon dieu, mon dieu..."
This is when the shift manager comes down the ladder, masque against his clipboard as he strains to read in the dim light. He looks up at the gang standing in the river and he wolf-whistles, the shrill sound echoing off the stone walls. "Why don't you come over to my place and cook me dinner sometime, Rosie?"
Rosie cackles. "Aw," she says amicably, "fuck off."
"What do we have here?" asks the shift manager, turning around to see Luc on the floor, strings of saliva hanging from his quivering lips.
"Greener," explains Rosie.
The shift manager raises his brow as he takes in the remains of the baby spattered before the chutes. He steps gingerly over the worst of it while he shakes his head and chuckles, scratching behind his ear with a pencil. "People flush the darnest things, don't they?"
"Yup," agrees Lee.
The shift manager prods Luc with his boot. "So, hey there buddy. Back to work, huh? Gotta learn by doing. No rest for the wicked."
Luc shakes his head. "I can't...I can't..."
"Okay, okay," nods the shift manager with a wan smile. "What's your name, buddy?"
"Luc," rasps Luc. "Luc Drapeau."
He makes a note on his clipboard, then tucks the pencil behind his masque. "You're fired, Luc."
Luc nods feebly, his eyes now pinched shut.