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The Bikes of New York
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12
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The Bikes of New York, a science-fiction novella by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 3

Imagine Luc Drapeau arriving in New York.

Imagine how a man from a sinking ruin must feel to see a city soar. The streets aren't clogged with hunched shoulders, they teem with frenetic obstinance -- hard pride rather than mute consolation, ambition over Christ, strategy before tradition. Where Montreal mourns New York is vital.

There are cars, and some of the skyscrapers are lit two thirds of the way up: candles of affluence, torches of hope.

On Cousin Philip's card Luc takes transit instead of walking to his first day of work. He rides a commuter tram down Columbus as the sun is cresting the highrises and suffusing the island with an amber glow that signals the start of daytime life. He gawks at mundane things and smiles at people. He is studiously ignored. He almost misses his stop. "He, arretez!" he cries, flailing for the exit. "Stop, s'il-vous-plait!"

When he hops off to the graffitoed landing the departing tram splashes his pantlegs with pure Manhattan swill, humming to itself as it goes. It clangs its bell to hurry the passage of a line of livestock. The sheep are startled, and so is Luc.

On these streets Luc is livestock, and so are we all. Within a quarter hour of dawn the throngs have thickened into a purposefully coursing, semi-permeable river of meat and cloth and chatter.

He shuffles forward, pushed from behind. He cranes his head to take in the panorama of high walkways connecting the buildings above, reflections glistening below in the canals between them, plied by dozens upon dozens of bright yellow gondolas piloted by brown-faced, hard-nosed gondoliers. They pole with purpose, ferrying the high and mighty to Wall Street in a steady rush south. They shout the financial conditions to one another, vying for audibility over the gondoliers' report on the tide and the cries of the streetside wallas hawking their wares. "Hot dog! Newsfeed! Recharge!"

And there he is, Luc Drapeau, feeling the throb of civilization through the soles of his shoes.

It isn't his imagination, for in Manhattan every sidewalk bounces to harness every footfall for the public pool, every recoil channeled to the island's banks of flywheels turning underground. It's rush hour at Penn Station that keeps Lady Liberty's torch glowing; it's Saturday in Times Square that lets the Freedom Tower shine.

The air becomes stifling as the sun rises higher. Luc blinks and consults his mental map again: he walks another block east, crosses a bridge clotted with bovine commuters on foot, comes out into a mildly flooded plaza. The plaza is filled with bikes, the uniform noise of their work rising like a nest of bees.

Luc walks through the field of them, feeling like a free man.

The riders sweat and sometimes grunt. They gulp as they drink hard-won water. They do not let their pace slacken. To lose momentum is to let joules fall down the well. Waste not, waste not.

I barely pay them any mind when I walk to work, and you probably don't either. Luc luxuriates in this disconnection we take for granted. He relishes it, tickled inside. He wants to laugh out loud.

The family's last nickel has been spent on his new suit. He feels glamourous. He feels tall.

He climbs the steps into the lobby, nods cheerfully to a blue police robot while he's scanned, then presents his papers to the dour doorman with a crisp flourish. "Goodmorning, sir!" he says in his best American accent.

The doorman frowns, shifts his weapon against his hip. "I'm going to swipe your card, okay? Do you understand me?"

"Sure, I speak fluid the English," claims Luc. He attempts to retrieve his card by reaching into his pants, which causes the doorman to interject heatedly. He points his weapon at Luc's groin while Luc slowly extracts his zippered pouch.

"Throw it on the ground," says the doorman.

"Are you serious?" asks Luc. "My wife give that to me."

"I don't know what's in there, okay?" says the doorman. A queue begins to jam up behind Luc. People complain to one another. The doorman stares into Luc's eyes. "I'm going to have to ask you to throw it on the ground at this time."

Luc is sweating. "My card is what's in there. Also my wife's cousin's card. A few loose change."

The doorman's eyes widen in alarm and his crewcut black hair seems to quiver on his sloped head. He raises his weapon and points it at Luc's forehead. He barks, "Why do you have your cousin's wife's card?"

"My wife's cousin's card for the transit," stammers Luc. "It was for me a favour..."

The queue behind him dissipates in search of other entrances. Luc and his interlocutor stand like stones in a river, diverting the flow, hemmed in by grumbling eddies.

"Now you're changing your story," says the doorman. "First it was this one's card, now it's another one's. You expect me to believe a status card gets you on the downtown tram at this point?"

"It is a card for the tram. A tram card!"

"Let me tell you here and now that you're not getting into this building without a status card," says the doorman, relaxing his weapon a trifle. "We don't accept tram cards."

"The status card is also in this pocket."

The doorman shouts, "Do not reach for your pocket at this time. Is that clear?"

The weapon is aimed between Luc's eyes again. He whispers, "This pocket in my hand."

The doorman narrows his eyes shrewdly. "Yours or your cousin's?"

"My hand, my status card."

"Okay," he agrees reluctantly, lowering his arm. "At this time I need you to throw that pouch on the ground for me, sir."

Luc sighs.

Cousin Philip's office is a wonder: floor to ceiling windows overlooking Manhattan, the filigree of embedded solar collectors barely visible in the expensive glass. Down below the streets are clouded in yellowish murk, the pedestrian traffic a vague blur of parasols. Luc turns from the view as Philip walks in. "Luc!" he says as he flashes a pearly smile.

"Philip, how are you?"

"I'm so glad you made it," says Philip, pumping his hand with a soft, uncalussed palm. Philip has become fat, a rarity these days outside the field of politics. His skin is pink and untanned. "Everything's well with Celise, the baby?"

"Yes, yes indeed. Thank you for all your arrangements."

Philip waves his hand dismissively, his cufflinks glittering. "Never mind that, Luc. Once you get your first paycheque we'll get you out of that boarding house and into a real flat -- something wired. How does that sound?"

Luc is stunned. "Electricity in the home?"

"Things are getting better every day," says Philip, which is his company's slogan. "America is recovering, Luc, and New York is on the leading edge. We're paving the way for the West. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and we're showing the world just how inventive America can be."

"The business she is doing well, then?"

Philip chuckles as he crosses the office. "Are you pulling my leg, cousin? Have you even looked at our numbers lately? We're going to own this city, Luc." He pauses beside an ornate humidor on his desk and extracts two cigars. "And after that -- the world. Cigar?"

"Thank you."

Philip smacks a match against its box and holds out the flame for Luc, then puffs his own smoke to life. "I haven't forgotten the work you did for my father back in Quebec. I know what kind of a shark you are. I also know things have been bad for you for a while, but they're going to turn around. You're with us, now. Welcome to your new life."

Luc loiters by the window, eyes cast down into the haze. He is lost in a daydream of impossible delights until he notices a squadron of vehicles cruising across the bike plaza. A moment later a flycycle glider swoops past the glass, making him jump. "Something is going on," he observes.

"Eh?" grunts Philip, blowing smoke rings.

"There's many police outside."

Philip frowns. He walks over and touches his forehead to the glass, looking down into the plaza. He licks his lips, the cigar hanging forgotten out of the corner of his mouth. "Oh, shit," says Philip drily.

"Shit?" echoes Luc.

"Shit, shit, shit," reiterates Philip, the colour draining from his jowls. He turns around and picks up a telephone on his desk, stabbing at the buttons. "Security: situation report. Oh. Oh, shit."

"Philip?" asks Luc, brow raised.

The door of Philip's office bursts open. Police in black uniforms and riot masques stomp inside and point their weapons at Philip and Luc while pressing their faces into the top of Philip's desk. Their cards are grabbed and scanned, their fingers pricked and drops of their blood slotted into a hand-cranked identifier. The identifier beeps ominously.

One of the officers flips up his visor and announces crisply, "Philip Beaudoin, you are under arrest for waste fraud. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or transmit can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to access a legal intelligence and to engage said entity via telepresence during questioning. If you cannot afford access to a legal intelligence, one will be appointed to represent you."

"Shit," says Philip again. He is hauled to his feet, and he casts Luc a glum shrug just before the hood comes down over his head. His wrists are manacled -- click, click, click.

The officer holding Luc looks up. "What about this one?"

The one with the identifier shakes her head. "Import worker from the Protectorate. He's nothing."

And he is: he's nothing. Luc wanders down the stairwell with all of the other nothings, mills in the lobby watching the executives and managers of Philip's company marched blindly by braces of cops out to waiting cars, blue bubble-lights spinning and flashing blandly.

Luc feels little. The morning's dizzying flight from ecstasy to desolation has left him numb. His mouth still tastes like cigar smoke -- woody and rich. It's a dream, a nightmare, a cruel joke.

"Tabernac," says Luc.

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