Monday 1 January 2007

The Bikes of New York, Part One

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

I have closed out the old year with a hot bath before drinks. A bonfire of candles gutters beneath the claw-footed tub, lending the impression that I am being stewed for cannibals. The water I've boiled on the stove and in the hearth, because sometimes the plumbing isn't everything you want it to be when you live in a century-old schoolhouse.

I feel refreshed. I feel relaxed. I have new ideas, and the itch to weave them into stories. Let's kick the new year off with a little scifi, shall we?


I don't know where he goes when he's on the bikes, and neither do you. But you can tell he's somewhere: the far away look in his eyes is unmistakable.

Luc Drapeau pedals the spinning world beneath his wheels, but never moves an inch. He pedals straight to Kingdom Come.

You may or may not think twice about him as you pass. You're on your way to work, or on your way home. You might be thinking about supper or taxes, underwear models or overdue bills. If you're social you might afford him a nod or a smile as he sweats for loose change, going nowhere, eyes at infinity. You don't feel very guilty. At least he's got the bikes, you reason.

Better the bikes than a beggar.

Luc Drapeau recognizes you. You might not know it, but it's true. He's far away but he's not gone. He knows the hours by your transits. Maybe he counts you, like sheep.

He sees the cars, too, what few remain. Do you remember when even the widest boulevards were thick with them on a Sunday afternoon? Now we all mosey along in liquid herds, stepping aside for the rare vehicle, warned by the conspicuous whine of its engine interrupting the scrapes and murmurs of purely human noise.

Luc Drapeau grunts, sitting up straighter as his pedaling tapers off to a ghost of a motion. He lets his cleats drop off the pedals, the pedals shudder to a halt. Through his thighs he feels the wheels fly on for a few seconds, lost in their own far away place of inertia.

But nothing's free: the bike quivers as the wheels stop.

Luc licks his lips. The bike box buzzes. He reaches out his cupped hands, which shake either from exertion or anticipation or both. He receives a small slurry of brown coins: silver and bimetallics, etched in grime.

He puts the coins in a zippered pocket that stashes inside his shorts. Wouldn't you?

That's his day of work. He's made his kilowatt quota. Other unfortunates pedal on but Luc Drapeau has a baby at home, and a wife who prays for better days. He wants to see them so he doesn't forget what being alive is for. He needs to see them so he knows why to get back on a bike tomorrow.

He wants to feel lucky. God knows we want him to feel lucky, so we don't feel so much like pigs. It isn't our fault the machine of the West staggered. The wiles of the worlds' economies continue to elude even the craftiest AIs, so who are we to pretend we saw it coming? Maybe it's karma, maybe it's cruel -- some of us just got off better than others when the bottom fell out of the world.

So you and I have jobs, and if we didn't we could ride the bikes like Luc Drapeau. We could stake out a favourite ride in a public square or the concrete parkette skirt of any commercial concern. The bikes are everywhere, after all. Every institution needs power, and so many people need coins.

They say it's an urban legend but it isn't: if you put your ear to the asphalt of a major avenue at a quiet hour of the night you can actually detect the murmuring spin of the great underground flywheels. The bikes feed their motion. So does the bouncing sidewalk beneath your feet, pumping the city to life.

Do you remember when they used to light up the buildings all the way to the top, even at night? Nowadays the only thing up there is the endlessly replicated silhouette of the wind turbines, turning and turning and turning. The tips of the city's fingers are dark. Nobody wants to move conditioned air up that high anymore. There just aren't enough bikes.

It's hot.

Luc Drapeau is even hotter. He strips as he walks, peeling off all but his worn cycling shorts. He leaves a trail of sweat droplets on the pavement that evaporate with thirsty haste.

He stops for water at the corner of St. Urbain and Rue Jacques Parizeau. An old Jewish bird runs a fountain there. You've probably never drank there -- it's local, nestled in the alley next to a cat farm. She doesn't serve strangers. "Monsieur Drapeau!" she cheers, smiling toothlessly.

"Madame," mutters Luc, nodding as he takes a cup from the rack.

If we did happen to stumble in there, you or I would have to pay in advance. But she tallies up Luc's draught only when he's sated, and because she's a sweetheart she always knocks a couple of milliliters off. She has a secret crush on the dimples in Luc Drapeau's buttocks.

"Merci," he whispers, putting his money on the counter and turning to go.

"A demain," she says, eyes flicking down.

The sun is setting. The streets are emptying. There are few lamps anymore, and the darkness is a threat to some and an opportunity to others. The changeover in ecosystems is heralded by a hurrying in the pace of people. They all want to be at home, no matter what home is.

Luc Drapeau's home is a hole in the wall. The bed folds out of the ceiling, but it's never folded up. Luc opens the door and takes off his street shoes before climbing up on the bed, then turns awkwardly to close the door behind him.

He strives to be quiet. His wife sleeps beside his son, curled into a tight cocoon in the blankets. She's left out a candle and match for Luc, as well as a package of dinner.

He pulls the tab, hears the contents start to sizzle.

Dimly through the walls he perceives the bass peal of cathedral bells echoing across twilit Montreal, announcing the hour. Luc winds the radio and puts on earphones. The national service is playing Debussy.

He puts his coins on the pillow, next to his wife's head.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see how we get from Montreal to New York.

Or is it that the bikes came from New York to Montreal?

I guess we'll know soon enough...

hygbfko: A Japanese company that produces sanitary products (of what nature I cannot imagine) for those who practice sodomy

Teddy said...

just to check: We are still in the SoS universe, correct? I love the post-apocalyptic feel. What has happened to the dams and the other wind-farms of the world? Or digging for core-heat to power engines through that?


Wil said...

A great start. I'm hooked...

(wiggle, wiggle)

cfngppg: Another pork barrel story from Canadian Fox News.

Mark said...

Great concept. Power through folks pedaling, like little hamsters on their wheels.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, CB!

Anonymous said...

So far So good

Happy New Year


Anonymous said...

Dang, you're breaking my heart on the initial installment. Here's hoping your first story of the year doesn't end in tragedy.

Happy 2007, and I hope your heat comes back soon. Maybe you need a stationary bike...?

Anonymous said...

neat stuff, where did you get the bouncy sidewalk idea, CBB?

Orick of Toronto

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Balrog,

We'll get to New York by and by.

Dear Teddy,

I imagine those and other solutions are being explored or employed, but there is still a serious gap: retrofitting cities to function in an energy crisis is not a smooth process.

Dear Wil, Mark, Anonymous,

We're just getting wound up.

Dear Simon,

In fact, the original idea stemmed from a conversation with a coworker who felt his energy was being "wasted" at the gym since the mechanical power he was summoning was being spent as nothing but heat.

Dear Mike,

Thanks kindly -- right back atcha.

Dear Sheik,

It's not that we don't have heat -- we just don't have much of it. As funds allow we will be expanding our infrastructure, but we use on-demand laser heating for our water to save on electricity and the manufacturer we had ordered a larger unit from seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Dear Orick,

I got the idea from those generator backpacks which hikers wear to charge their mobile phones and GPS readers -- every bounce as you step works against a spring to add charge to an onboard battery. Very clever, I thought, and suitable for wider application.

Cheeseburger Brown