Excerpt for Northern Tier: A Novel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



NORTHERN TIER



by david axel kurtz










NORTHERN TIER


a novel

by

David Axel Kurtz



www.davekov.com


The following is a work of fiction.

Any people, places or city-states in this work are the products of the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance to actual persons, real or fictional, living or dead, is unintentional and regretted.



All rights reserved.

© 2017


1


Two riders come over the mountain.

They pedal slow and easy, long downstrokes, high posture. No rush hauls today, no deliveries due. Easy as swans gliding over still water. They’ve kept the same pace the whole way up the mountain.

Two bicycles. Racks front and back, panniers down on either side. To hold their kits. Tent. Tools. Everything a cycer needs or might need out on a cross.

They each have a rifle slung across their back.

There’s still a powder of snow in the air but the trees are budding, sky’s gone summerblue. Few days and the mountains will shine with green. Down in the lowlands the farmers are just starting to claw at the earth. The passes are clear. Time to open camp.

Mountain peaks to either side. Clouds close enough to run your fingers through. A mountain stream of clearwater runs right through the pass. So does a road. A cycer road.

Used to be a little town there. Gas station, roadside motel, for the cars passing through on their way to Albany or Boston. Hasn't been a car on this road in two hundred years. The gas dried up. So did the cities. Now in summer it's a cycer camp, and in the winter: nothing.

This camp's built around an old church, high stone walls that don't look like they've felt wind or winter while every building around has fallen to fir-tree or frost. The riders coast up to it, unclip and dismount but keep their bikes close. Cycers do that.

The cycers pull their rifles. The big cycer sets down his bike. The other takes off her helmet. Her ponytail’s tied with a little piece of white leather.

Ponytail walks to the side, drops to one knee, gives the other cover. The big cycer goes barrel-first up to the great church door. He pulls down the crossbeam with both hands and drops it down. Takes a breath, then pushes the doors open.

Nothing.

He goes inside. Ponytail follows, gun at her shoulder, ears pricked for noise from any side.

Light rushes into the hollow of the church. All the pews have long since fallen to the fireplace. A row of cooking-pots, a pile of dry wood with a pile of wood-axes beside. Crates in the corner, filled with supplies. Silence.

They secure the door behind them, spread out and check the building. Nothing and nobody. No bears down from the mountain, no squatter come up the frozen pass through neck-high snow. Nobody waiting to jump out at them. Kill them. Steal their hauls. Steal their bikes.

The big cycer goes out and brings in their bikes, one at a time. His is painted a mottled dark red like mud or last year's leaves, the first color to fade into the night. Ponytail’s bike is spackle-painted, black and sky-blue, with white leather handlebar-wraps and panniers and saddle. Showy.

The big cycer’s bike could use a new coat of paint, a few new spokes, a good polish to the saddle. He'll have plenty of time to fix it up over the summer. He's the camper.

He's the one who's going to spend the summer at the camp, six months or seven or however long until the snows threaten to close the passes again. He'll be the one to welcome cycers as they pass through, give them food and shelter before they get back on the road and on their way. He'll be the one to keep the camp supplied from the nearby towns, to keep the peace with the towns, to make this camp a haven so that cycers can ride out and through. Haul their packages. Earn their fees. Keep talk and trade moving across a big piece of land that used to be a country.

He pulls out his knife and pries open the nearest crate. Inside are rows of jars: flour, lard, Carib lemon juice, Columbian tea, gunpowder, tooth-powder, spare tubes, chain grease. Enough to last them until the first team of oxen comes over the mountain, bringing winter wheat from Brattle, bringing whatever the camper's bought for the cycers when they roll through.

Ponytail unstraps her sleeping-roll from her rear rack, unrolls it on the dusty floor. In the middle is a copper spyglass. She telescopes it open, fixes it to her rifle. Throws the camper a big salute, which he smiles at and then ignores, and she goes to climb the steeple, hold the fort.

The camper goes over to the corner and starts counting stacked firewood. The last camper seems to have left them understocked. He went out last winter on a cross, hauling letters for rich men and coded words for merchants and ampoules of novocaine that had been found in the ruins of a hospital. Last sight of him was on the Southern Tier, he left one camp and never made it to another. The cycers didn't know what happened to him. No one ever would.

Ponytail's voice comes down from the steeple: "Oi!"

It's not an alarm. But it's the first word either of them have said in four hours. In a single motion the camper's got his back to the firewood and his shoulder pressed to the rifle-stock.

Then, down from the steeple: "There's a cycer on the round."

The camper stares at the ceiling, waiting for more, waiting for it to make sense. It doesn’t.

"On the round?" he calls.

"Riding."

Most camps have a round for riding. If a cycer's at a camp for a day, a week, they need to keep fit. Keep up their stamina. Keep their chains moving. Keep riding.

Some people have bikes. Not many.

Nobody rides like a cycer.

"Anything else?" the camper calls.

He waits. Ponytail scans the horizon, first with her eyes, then with her gunsight, inch by inch. A cycer’s slow, methodical, patient. That’s what lets them be the fastest things in the world, hour into hour, day after day.

He stands still, waiting in the silence. Then she calls down: "No."

Ponytail climbs down, jumps the last few ladder-rungs. They go out into the end-of-winter air. They walk around the church, frozen grass crunching under their boots. There’s a path of fieldstones, green and white with lichen. They walk on the grass to keep their cleats from scraping.

They cross a little wood-plank bridge over a mountain stream. Behind the church there's enough land to plant a big salad-garden, graze half a hundred sheep. Then there are spruces, green and tall, with a few feet of the round visible through a tree-break.

A rider flashes past.

They both stop. Ponytail glances at the camper. The camper doesn't move. He waits, unmoving. And he counts.

Fortyfive seconds later the rider flashes past again.

The camper's eyebrows arch. This round’s a quarter mile. Many riders could hit that speed. Some could pass it. Few sustain it. This one’s holding it. They’re pacing themselves to exactly twenty miles per hour. Like a musician with a metronome. This rider is a cycer.

The camper walks to the round, Ponytail just behind.

They see a rider all in gray. Her bike is milk-white. The fringes of hair beneath her helmet are chestnut-brown. She's covered in sweat.

On her rear rack, tied firmly in place, is a pyramid of small steel girders. They're each two inches square and a half-foot long. The camper knows they weigh six pounds each. Cycers just call them weights. He can't count them exactly but he knows there's a lot of them. Maybe ten of them. Sixty pounds. Half as much as she weighs. Twice as much as most cycers will haul on a cross.

Her lungs are pumping, chest rising and falling like a bellows. Then she notices them, Ponytail and the camper. Doesn't stop. Doesn't even break stride. The two of them look at her. Look at each other. Then the camper shrugs and sits down on a tree-stump by the side of the round. It's good manners. Don't interrupt a cycer at her exercise.

She passes by them eight times. Ponytail drops and does pushups. The camper just stands there, breathing deep.

Without warning the rider moves her bike to the edge of the round, reaches back and pulls a piece of rope. The weights come flying off, clattering like warring churchbells as they roll and scatter. One stops about ten feet from Ponytail's head. The camper catches the rider smiling as she passes by.

She takes five more laps, three at speed, two at a coast. She stops about fifty feet away. She gets off her bike, lays it down, walks over to the stream. There's a section about ten feet long that's been dug deep and lined with fieldstones to make a flowing cistern. She takes off her helmet and her gloves and her cleated shoes. She takes off her clothing. She jumps in.

The water's not deep. She tucks into a cannonball, her knees just glancing off the bottom. Stays under for ten seconds, fifteen, twenty. Feels the current pulling her. Feels daggers in her chest, her throat, her eyes. Starts to feel nothing. Starts to feel clean.

She bursts out of the water, rises sputtering, pulls herself out, gasping, runs a cloth over her body, shivers in the cold. Bends down and pulls her sweaty clothing back on again. Her cheeks are raw from the cold and the wind and the ride.

She lifts up her bike and loops the straps of her helmet over her deep drop handlebars. She puts her left foot onto the right pedal and kicks off, coasts right up to them.

"You the camper?" she asks the big guy.

He nods.

“I’m out,” she says. Makes to ride away.

"How long have you been here?" Ponytail asks her.

"November," she says.

"Alone?"

She nods.

"Why did-"

The camper cuts her off. "What's your name?"

She holds his eyes. "Slip."

Most cycers use nicknames. The camper's met many of them, heard even more. He knows their names like they were his brothers, because they are.

He knows her name.

"You're dead," he says.


***


Somehow they'd figured out what she was hauling. Six kilograms of raw brown opium from the fields of Sun Valley, heading to the great hospital in Great Newbury. They came on horseback down off the plains. She heard them coming. She ran.

Saw more up ahead. Surrounded. Ran from the road, into the woods. Hid in a farmer's barn. Paid him to boil goat’s-milk down into paint. Coated her bike, again and again. Waited for snow, days, days, hiding in the belfry with a spyglass and a knife. Snow came. And cold, and wind. She saddled up. She rode.

Cut through the Buffalo glow, ruined city, ruined roads. Rode through field and forest. Rode through snow-white winds. Got to Bent to find the passes closed. Didn't stop, didn’t look behind her. Headed into the mountains, into the wind.

Took her five days. Got caught in a two-foot blizzard. Pulled her bike through the piling snow. Inch by inch. Nearly froze to death. Made it to the camp, dug out a side-window and broke in. Made a fire with hands almost gone to frostbite. Sealed the window with layers of cloth soaked in oil and caked with cinders.

Hooked her bike to a hobble and rode in place. Lifted logs as weights, did pikes and pushups, stayed strong. Rationed her food. Dreamed of the road.

For six months.


***


"Guess I gave 'em the slip," she says.

Ponytail stares.

Slip ignores her. "You're low on wood and butter."

"Do you still have your haul?" the camper asks.

She nods. Looks behind them at the open church. "How are the roads?"

The camper gives her the cycer's thumbs-up: four fingers splayed up into the air.

She looks at the sky. It's about three in the afternoon. It'll be dark in two hours. Not much time to ride.

"Out," she says. Gets on her bike and rides back to the church, leaving Ponytail and the camper to stare after her.

"Six months," says Ponytail. "Six fucking months!"

The camper turns and watches her ride away.


2

A cycer crosses. A cycer’s crossed.


To be a cycer, all you need to do is ride from one coast to the other.

No law says so. Nobody checking on you, nobody to give you spurs. But how else are you going to look some merchant or major or mayor in the eye and say that you’re a cycer, sure you can cross, trust me your cargo, give me your gold?

Make a cross. Any cross. Go from Halifax to Columbia in summer, Sinaloa to the Carolinas in winter. Depends on the weather, what roads are repaired, who’s at war. Routes always change. You go from camp to camp so you can get the news, find out where to go and what to bring. Stay safe. Stay alive. Stay riding.

You make it, you want to do it again, you're a cycer. Anointed. Ready for a haul. Keep hauling until you break, you die, or you walk away. Most don't walk away.

This one girl rides into Miramichi on a bike that's barely holding together. Thing must weigh forty pounds. She doesn't look much bigger. Three months later this sweet little bike, long and light, cruises into Astoria Bay. Camper there asked her what news she had, what town’s she’d seen, what camps had given her shelter. She shook her head. None. She’d just ridden. She’d just crossed.

"And how the hell did you manage that?"

She shrugged. "Guess I gave 'em the slip."


***


Slip goes into the church, gathers her kit. Gets the strongbox that has her cargo still inside. She made it all winter without opening it.

She straps it to her rear rack, cinches it down tight. Stows her bed-roll in a pannier, throws a box of hard-tack into her handlebar bag, opens the great front door of the church, and rides out.

Her muscles are warm, glowing. Plenty of life left in them. She pushes strong and hard, cresting the mountain into a golden flow of sun. Rides. She uncorks an aluminum bottle full of water, drinks it dry. She takes a sip from another bottle and then stops by the side of the road to pee.

The road isn’t great. Two hundred years of frost and flood, two hundred years to break and buckle. Two hundred years since the last new road was laid. But for two hundred years the roads have belonged to the cycers.

Some cycers ride heavy bikes, full suspensions, studded tires, low gears. They can take the roughest fire-trail, the most broken road in the wreck of a dead city. But they're slow. They won't get the rush hauls, the ones that pay the best, the ones that let you hold your head highest when you stand around other cycers in whatever camp or city you've just rolled into. When they're being chased, they won't get away.

Slip's bike is long, light, thin tires, high gears. It's responsive. Means she can feel every pebble she rides over. Feels like riding a triphammer. She hasn’t felt that feeling in half a year.

Tomorrow she's going to be sorer than a New Bern whore when the sailors get paid. Today she clips in, puts her head down, and rides.

It's fifteen miles to the Connecticut River. The wind rushes over her; she opens up to it, pulling it over her like a warm blanket. She opens her mouth and lets it fill her. Chews on it. Bites it. Laughs with a mouthful of the wind.

The road levels off. She reaches down to her frame, grabs a water bottle, takes another drink.

She pulls into Brattle as the sun is setting. As she slows to the speed of village traffic her muscles cool. She feels the night air which is cooler still. She stops in front of a tall building, three stories of old brick with a new fourth story of wood up above. There are horses tethered in front of it, and two bikes locked to iron posts. Little city cruisers, driveshafts and fat tires. Clean. Comfortable. Nothing to a cycer.

Slip carries her bike up the steps and inside.

It's a nice tavern. The kind of place where the beer's not too expensive and not too cheap. A place where she won't get rolled by the owners or stabbed by the regulars. A place where she can sleep with one eye open, as opposed to not sleeping at all.

There are casks of beer behind the counter, jars of pickles, a glass-fronted cabinet full of smoked sausages and potted meats. Paintings on the walls, faded mirrors. Men eat and drink, some women too. A man with a golden beard plays a long-necked guitar and sings.

Slip asks for a round loaf of barley-bread. A piece of hard cheese. A bowl of mashed carrots with toasted seeds. Water to drink, because the Connecticut runs swift enough that even in a town this big it'll be clean and sweet.

The barmaid stares at her. She's never left her town. She's never had a bike between her legs. She's never pushed over a mountain, pushed across the world, pushed the wind through her hair. She never will. She knows it. The distance between them is the distance from one coast to another. They're both ninenteen.

Two men come over. Older. One's got the lopsided biceps of a blacksmith. "Buy you a drink?" he asks.

Slip shakes her head, gently. "Never drink on a cross."

"Where you crossing to?"

"NSH," she lies.

"Poor dry Halifax," the other guy says. He smells like malt and bitter hops.

The blacksmith looks at her bike. "Can I?"

She nods. He gets down on a knee and plays with it. Counts the teeth on the cassettes. Runs his fingers over welds that are barely there. The brewer eats a bowl of pickled radishes. The food of early spring.

"Beautiful bike," the blacksmith says, looking at Slip like she was his favorite daughter.

"That'll be four dollars," says the barmaid.

"And a room," Slip says.

"Seven."

"Private room."

The barmaid glares. "Fourteen."

Slip doesn’t have any Brattle dollars. Silver's too heavy, nobody takes diamonds. She tries not to spend her gold unless she needs to. But she’s almost to the coast. Almost to payment. Almost cross. Tonight she’ll make an exception - for a bed.

The brewer makes a pass at her. He just wants to show that he's one of the boys. Even though he stirs pots and she's a knight.

She shakes her head at him. He tries again. Until the blacksmith puts a hand on his friend's shoulder, and wishes the cycer goodnight.

The room's fireplace is full of smolder, pine branches hanging from the rafters, bedclothes turned down. She bars the door behind her and open the wood-slat window just a half an inch. Then she climbs onto the soft bed and falls asleep. Because a cycer's a person who rides, then eats, then sleeps.

3


A cycer's all that's left.


Big Tyler was the camper at American Falls. Slip had been there two days, fresh off a haul, just stretching, waiting, riding the round. Then this baby-faced cycer that called himself Redwood dragged himself in, feverish, aching, needed a week in bed to sweat through it. So Big Tyler took his haul away from him. And gave it to Slip. And she rode out.

It had been an easy cross. Good weather. Good roads, good as you could hope for. Two blown tubes, broke a tent-pole, gapped a chain. About the most exciting thing was wading across a stream where the bridge had washed away. Her fourteenth cross in three years. On track to come in at forty-six days. If they hadn't come for her. If they hadn't made her six months late.

Slip had no idea who they were. Even less how they'd known to look for her. Nobody could have told them. There's no news faster than cycer news. All she could think was that this shipment had gone through before, same time, same route. They'd known what to expect. They were waiting.

Have to change it up - but the camper she'd met at the church, he'd have figured that already. The next cycer who passed through his camp would get told about it. And the next and the next. Knowledge spreads. Doubled at the next camp, redoubled, rippling, until word was sure to get back to American Falls. No matter how many cycers were slowed or changed course. No matter how many rode out of one camp and never rode into another.

Not Slip's problem. All that's left for her is to ride.


***


She hears the city wake before dawn. Creaking axles, pulleys, bustle, soles of wood and leather on stone and street. She tries to go back to sleep. The trying makes her awake. She misses the church. Knew she would. Cold, empty, a tomb for one, but with deep snow to every side it was a fortress all her own. No camp ever felt so safe, nor the richest tavern, not a tent pitched on the stillest roadside. She'd never felt so safe.

She stretches. Her legs burn. No more than usual. Her calves feel hard against the soft sheets. First time in six months she's slept in a bed. Closer to eight months, come to that. And this is a very soft bed, in a warm room with a cool breeze, and it takes Slip an hour to get out from between the covers.

She fills a chamber-pot, washes her face with warm water from a red clay pitcher, scratches her forearms, brushes her teeth. She gives her bike a quick check, chain still greased, brake cables tight, even the tires still hard with air. She checks her haul but it's just where she left it, and everything in her kit right where it should be. She rolls her bike down the stairs and out into spring.

There are a thousand people in Brattle. It's a market-town, warm enough to grow things, cold enough to get cut off from the world each winter. Slip hasn't seen the whole country but she's seen the better part of it, and those towns that get closed off for a season - snow in winter, desert sun in summer - seem to be the cleanest, the safest. The most civilized. The most surviving.

Some cycers carry maps, bought or drawn themselves. Slip doesn't need them. She knows the world by heart. Knows the cycer roads like a surgeon knows the arteries and veins. Knows the big towns and the small towns, the dead cities, the glow. There are no safe towns. Just some that are easy, some that are hard.

She turns north. Rider over cobblestones. Rides around carts and horses. Rides out of town. Rides past granaries and slaughterhouses, smelters and tanners. Rides past horse-barns and pastures. Rides past farm and field. Then there's a crossroads, an inn with three chimneys, a stone blockhouse with sentries on the roof. The road goes north and east. Slip fills her water-bottles from a yellow hand-pump then turns her tires east.

There are two bridges side by side. Both are great arches framed with steel trusses, all brown-black with pine pitch to keep them from rusting through. The one on the left's a little wider, a little taller. Slip doesn’t know why there are two. No one does.

She goes up the narrower bridge, because there's a team of oxen pulling a wagon on the other. The drover waves at her as she breezes by.

The road begins to rise. Slip drops her gear, then again, then again. Her bike has three gears in front and ten in back, giving her thirty speeds to choose from. At the lowest gear she'll ride as fast as an old farmer walking. At the highest gear she can ride like the turning of the earth.

The road gets rougher, the patches older and fewer between. Not many people live up in the hills, not much is grown up here, not much traffic. A traveling merchant from Brattle might range a hundred miles but never go over this hill to Keene. The world shapes commerce. Cycers cut across the world.

She passes a patch crew. Five old men, two old mules, a roaring fire and a cauldron full of smoking pitch. They must work for Brattle or Keene. Paid to go up and down the road filling cracks and fixing breaks, repairing the damage of winter, keeping it safe for cycers to ride. So messages can go easier, deliveries come faster. So cycers pass through. So the world doesn’t pass them by,

The sun isn't even in the middle of the sky when Slip comes to a little town. There's a sign by the road, a long log cut in half and the flat part burned with the town's name. A dirt path lined with old bricks goes down from the road to the town: a stone church with a wooden steeple, a dozen houses, a great lake that's bluer than the sky. Around the town Slip can see cows and sheep, barns and meadows, rolling hills and stands of spruce and pine.

Her stomach rumbles. She wants to stop, sit by the fire, put up her feet. That's a sign she hasn't been riding hard enough. She shifts to a higher gear and bows her head.

She comes to a steep climb. She drops her gear, but soon she finds herself shifting back up. She stands up in the saddle, leans forward on her handlebars, huffs and puffs, climbs and climbs. Her first hill in half a year. She's grinning. The cold air makes her teeth sing.

Then she's going down. The wind rushes over her, through her. She savors the feeling. There won't be any hills like this between here and the coast. If her next haul's going down to the Carolinas she might not see another mountain for months. But most of the coastal traffic's handled by ships. A cycer's for moving across the land.

She rushes down the hill. Has to juke to avoid potholes. Then she's at the base of the hill and she sees that the trees have budded. Like a great garden of tiny fruit. Here is spring.

She's hungry now. Starting to feel cold. Her muscles getting stiff. She needs to eat. She passes a farmhouse. Another, sheep on the fold. A house with no farm, a tradesman or craftsman or hunter. She looks to her right and sees a stretch of road all broken and overgrown, unmaintained. She looks to her left and sees the shell of an old building, some giant concrete thing from before. It's fallen in on itself, only one wall standing. Covered with brambles. Filled with trees.

She rides into Keene with the sun just passing noon. She passes a family all on horseback, a wagon carrying cedarwood barrel-staves, two men holding rifles and walking at an easy gait. She passes building after building, four-story brick buildings, all abandoned, all overgrown with trees and weeds. Some of their white marble columns still standing. Some fallen. Some missing, hauled away to help build something new. A few of the smaller buildings look occupied. Five men with sledgehammers are breaking down a hall that must cover two acres. Criminals, maybe. Village idiots. Newcomers trying to earn the freedom of the town. It'll take years to clear away that one building. No shortage of years. No shortage of empty buildings blocking out farmland, falling to pieces, filled with ghosts.

She rides into the middle of town. The modern town, occupied, doing well. At least a dozen people walking the streets. Men in long charcoal coats and knit gloves in bright colors. Women in white wool sweaters that go down past their knees. Store-fronts and shops with signs on the doors. Brick buildings on both sides, glazed windows under green awnings looking down at a park of pavestones. A knife-sharpener, a farrier, a tinker selling iron pots and copper pans. A seed exchange, a smokehouse, barber, a doctor, two lawyers, what every small town needs. A few hundred people buying and selling with the few thousand farmers who live in the land around. Beyond them: forest, wilderness, until the next farmland starts, clustered around the next town. Everything else is mountains or desert or the sea.

There's a bakery just off the main square. A sign hangs above a door, a metal plaque cut with the image of a loaf of bread and a steaming cup. It's brass or bronze, polished to a shine, glows like melted beeswax under the midday sun. Slip pulls her bike up to a three-bike rack and locks it with a quick-release lock. Some cycers carry heavy locks, but to Slip it's just extra weight. No dissuasion to a sheriff or thief who's already cut your throat. Better to keep your bike near, keep it in eyesight, keep it so that if you need to run there's nothing between you and the road.

An eight-year-old boy opens the door for her. He's blind. A flour-dusted man is behind the counter, a great iron oven just behind him. There's a menu, and a wire rack with cookies and pastries for those who can't read or those who'd rather see and smell. At a small table a merchant with road-dust on his boots puts himself to a bit of bread and cheese. A farmer drinks a dark beer. Two old women eat scones and laugh and drink small cups of roasted chicory. From the back room Slip hears shouting - lawyers, maybe. Merchants, traders, professionals, they all do their work in coffee-shops. Even when there aren't a half-dozen coffee shops north of the Gulf where you can get actual coffee.

The man at the counter smiles at her. "You're the first cycer we've seen this year."

"Hope I'm not the last.”

"Sure hope so." And he tries to make smalltalk, but Slip doesn't talk like that. She didn't choose this life because she liked to talk.

She thinks about buying a loaf of bread for her supper. Decides against it. She's fifty miles to Concord, with eight hours of light left and clear skies every way. It's a hilly ride, and the roads will be worse than usual with the snow just melted. But she'll make it. She'll make a tavern before nightfall. She will.

Instead she orders four pastries and a quart of cow's milk. The ladies at their scones look up at her, talk about her, don't hide their gaze. The farmer drinks his beer. Shouting from the back room, a hand slapping a table. Lawyers doing their client's work. The kind of angry words that won't lead to angry blows. Safe anger. Civilization.

The pastries are flaky, golden-brown and slightly salty. They're folded into triangles with filling showing in the center. Three have sweet cheese, sheep's milk or maybe goat. One has a black paste that might be ground-up poppy-seed.

She eats them all. Drinks the milk and gets another pint to sip. She wants to keep eating. A cycer always wants to keep eating. But if she eats any more she'll need to hole up for an hour to digest, and sleep or fight not to sleep, and she'll be lucky if she leaves town with three hours of light left. Instead she gets two salted wheat rolls and sticks them in her handlebar-bag. Pays in Brattle dollars, her change from the inn, all she has. Tips her helmet to the farmer, turns and heads away.

A little time to digest won't break her plans. Better than throwing up lunch after climbing a hard hill. She goes to the mayor's office, or whatever they call it in Keene. In a town this size, there'll be a man that settles disputes, a deputy or two, a man to hold parcels and maybe change money, a secretary to take notes. Or there'll be a petty tyrant, his strongmen and their dogs, a crooked assayer, two beaten whores to keep them all in liquor. Or some of each.

Keene calls him the Town Councilor. Slip presents herself to his secretary. He smiles as her from behind a great oak desk. Behind him hangs an oil-painting of the college in its old splendor. There's a rack of six bells, each a different size. He takes the third and rings it. A few seconds later a man with a bushy beard comes down the hallway, wearing the long coat that seems to be the fashion of the region, sporting a trimmed white beard, holding a stack of letters. "Most to Concord," he says. "Couple for Portland, if you're going a-that way."

"Dollar a letter," she says.

He scoffs. "Penny."

“Dollar."

"For a-pieces a paper?"

"Dollar."

He looks at the letters. Some were probably penned last October, have been sitting there ever since.

"Five dollars for the stack."

"Twenty."

"Twenty if you're a-going to Portland."

"Twenty. I ain't."

He raises his bushy eyebrows. "Twenty-five if you do."

"I'll drop 'em in Concord."

"No. Don't trust 'em."

"Twenty to Concord," Slip says. "That's it."


***


Slip's got a haul. Long distance, rich cargo. Dangerous. Months of her life. Doesn’t mean they pay her enough to get rich. A cycer’s lucky if a cross pays enough to cover the cost of the cross.

But apart from the haul she can take whatever jobs she finds. Any drop-off, any pickup, anything that comes up along the way. If she wants money for herself she'll have to.

Every cycer does something with their money. Send it home to Sis or Son, send it back to wife or husband or husbands. Some are saving up, to get married, buy a house, a fishing-boat, get fifty acres cleared for planting with nut-trees and a pond big enough to stock with fish for dinner. Some spend it on nice inns, feather-beds. Some buy new derailleurs, fresh wheelsets, lighter frames. Some drink their money away on one coast and then cross back so they can drink on the other. Some buy gold chains, gem bracelets. Plenty spend it on whores. Some just give it away.

Some just don't think about it. And ride.


***


He tries to keep bargaining. She just looks at him, hard at first, then just bored. He sees it in her eyes. That she's about to ride out on him, and who knows when the next cycer will come through.

He reaches into a deep pocket, gives her four silver coins.

Slip takes his coins and pockets them with a shrug. Takes the letters, puts them in her handlebar bag. Unlocks her bike, picks it up to roll it to the street, then leans it towards her to swing her leg up and over.

She pedals lazily back to the bakery. Doesn't even dismount. The blind boy opens the door. Slip tells him to hold out his hand, and he does, and she gives him a silver coin.

He stares straight ahead but his gap-toothed mouth opens in a smile. He'll remember.

Towns remember. Towns are the chains and money's the grease. Maybe the next time a plague comes, or bad news, or a package is just late, they'll remember that a cycer was nice to one of their unfortunate. And they won't take out their troubles on the next cycer. And Slip won't ride into town and see someone she knows hanging from an oak-tree, helmet still on their head.

Slip looks at the town's great clock-tower. Half an hour since she ate. Close enough. She pedals, pedals, and the town is behind her. Farmland. Then fir trees. And she and the road are alone.


4


A cycer rides.


The sky stays clear. Wind comes up a little as the sun heads down. Rough roads. Soggy leaves, fallen trees. Slip dreams about the quiet of the church, the easiness, the safety. The same way she spent six months dreaming about the road that's now beneath her tires.

She skirts a little town where oxen stare at her from pens and pasture. She follows a stony river with the steel of a broken bridge cradled inside. There's a waterfall at Bailey with a mill and a smelter with three smokestacks. Passes a person, another. They turn their heads to watch her go by.

They clap. Muted by their mittens. They clap for her as she rides by.

She passes a cabin smoldering by the roadside. She eats a roll without breaking stride.

There's music in Hillsboro. A six-piece band is taking a break, an old man with a bass is thumping away. There must be two hundred people. Women, children. Must be the whole town. A little festival to welcome an early spring. Slip isn't the only one who's been barred from the outdoors for half a year.

She smells the celebration, more than sight or sound. Popcorn with butter, fried dough and crusty bread. Fresh cider made from last year's apples when they know they won't need to ration them any longer.

She rides on rough cart-paths to stay away. If she gets closer she'll get caught up, they'll welcome her, make her stay. But she has movement in her muscles. There's sun left and road ahead to ride.

Up hills, down hills. A little snow on the road as she cuts through Henniker. The town's quiet, only a person or two out on the streets. A few hundred people either indoors or farming or hunting. Like everywhere.

The sun's just above the trees. Hopkinton looks like Hillsboro looks like the world. She stops in the town square to fill her water-bottles from a green pump. A man tries to talk to her but she shakes her head. He keeps talking. She tunes him out. Gets in the saddle and rides away.

She passes a big white barn and white farmhouse. Must be fifty head of cattle. Three ranchers around a fire, warming their hands, passing around a pail of milk. Then she's going down a hill, wind in her teeth. Clips out her feet to stretch. She's tired, she realizes. She could ride all night if she had to. But she doesn't have to. A bed sounds very nice.

The town of Concord. Still calls itself the capital. Doesn't say of what. The towns right around it call it the capital. One town farther out and they let it call itself whatever it wants. One town farther and they might go ten years without hearing someone make that claim. In Keene they'd laugh. Lancaster they'd throw you in jail. Any farther north and you'd be lucky to find someone who'd even heard they used to be a state.

Three thousand people. So the sign says. Right next to the toll-booth, the toll that they make everyone but cycers pay.

The town is well. Healthy. They've torn down the old buildings, gotten rid of the rubble. Kept the statehouse clear, that dome shining in the setting sun. Policemen walking the street, people doing their business, living their lives. When the darkness comes there'll even be some street-lamps burning bright.

Slip slides up in front of the state-house. Drops a foot to the ground. She's done for the day.

Then she realizes that she's out, she's moving, she's out, she's riding, she's out, she's free, she's riding, she's riding, and it's everything she can do not to throw up her hands and scream.


***


She calls to a passer-by. An older man in a black wool coat. Cut shorter than in Keene, and his hat is wool. He has a dog on a leash who looks well-fed and well-loved. He smiles at her. A rich man loves a cycer.

"Place to stay?" she asks.

He points a gloves hand. "The Anchor," he says. "Shan't even bill a cyclocourier. Our pleasure."

He introduces himself, takes her hand and kisses it. She promptly forgets his name if she ever heard it. She nods at him, he smiles with crinkled eyes. Foot on pedal. Round and round. To the Anchor. Dismounting. Done.

A city inn. A bar-counter with glass jars full of spirits, infusions of rosemary and peppermint and pine. Stemmed glasses, knuckle-bowls of little foods. All men here. Older men, standing, hands in waistbands, haughty beards, little lords. Slip drags in her bike. The men pretend not to notice her, stick to their whiskey and their stories. The innkeep hardly glances at her. Just a guest who isn't paying. In a room full of people, Slip is alone. She couldn't be happier.

The innkeep gives her room on the ground floor. A rough window opens to a little courtyard, a square of dead grass, building all around it. A corn-husk mattress wrapped in linen, a heavy wool quilt. No decorations. No fireplace. The pleasure of the town of Concord for a cycer.

She's just taken off her cleats when there's a knock at the door. Lets himself right in. Just a kid, nervous, dressed like the local lords but not grown into it yet. Hardly a beard to speak of. Not much older than Slip.

He doesn't need to say a word. Slip goes to her pannier and pulls out the letters. Hands him the bundle. He thanks her, eyes travel up and down her, bows his exit and closes the door behind him.

She made it. Seventy miles. Only seventy but New England miles, rough, mountainous. Cold. Clear skies but cold. A little day. But a good day's ride.

She drop down to the bed. Her eyes are wide open, staring at the ceiling. Her legs burn. Not unpleasantly. She's not tired. She's not even hungry. She's warm, warmed up. She's wide awake.

Shit.

She lies there for a time. It doesn't get better. The fire in her legs flares and smolders. She jumps up. Does some stretches. She wants to sprint, to run. Even her hunger's faded. She's burning. She needs to ride.

How do you tire out a cycer? She could do calisthenics. Get on her bike and find a loop around the city, ride it like a round, ride herself into bed. Go for a swim, there must be a cold lake somewhere around. Stuff herself with rich food. Don't eat at all and drink three pints of beer.

Only problem is, none of those work. How do you tire out a cycer? Make them ride.

She stands up, looks about the room. All she wanted, warm - warm enough. Then she smiles, a big fat-mouthed smile. There's nothing keeping her here, nothing holding her back. There is nothing standing between her and the road but herself.

Ten minutes later she's out on the street. A woman shivering in a heavy coat is cleaning the black from a street-lamp. She turns her head, but Slip's already flashed by.


5

A good cycer rides the hardest rides. A great cycer rides the easiest.


It's fifty miles to Newbury. But there aren't many places in the world where a cycer can sail straight from A to B. Things get in the way. Bad roads. No roads. Lakes, mountains. Ruins of towns. Towns that thrive. Floods. Wars. And smashed cities that still glow in the dark.

They don't really glow. People just say that. It's better than saying that the cities will kill you. Burn you. Ruin your body. Ruin the soil. Poison the fish a hundred miles downstream. Kill your children. Disfigure them, twist their bones, burn them in the womb. Not with so many people burned, in ways you can see, in ways you can't. Instead people talk about the glow.

Portsmouth glows. For two hundred years now. The world has accommodated. So have the roads.

There's a good road skirting the ruined city, lets a cycer stay nice and upwind of the old poisons. But no spur linking it to Concord. So it's south to Besic and then a flat burn to the sea.

The moon's just rising, just past full. The Besic Road's good as you can ask for, paved and patched for cycers. There are houses by the roadside, farmhouses and inns and taverns. All with fire in the windows and smoke in the chimneys. Little points of light, passing to either side. It's like riding through the stars.

A breeze picks up, wind out of the west. In an hour it will be behind her, pushing her, carrying her. Just like her it started at the Pacific. Just like her it's heading for the sea.

Right now it's in her right eye like a fingernail. She moves her left hand to the center of the handlebars and reaches forward with her right. She opens the clasps on her handlebar bag and pulls out a pair of goggles, leather strap dangling from their right side. With one hand she runs the strap behind the right ear-strap of her helmet. Reaches around head and, with a little fiddling, gets it behind the ear-strap on her left. Brings the strap around and fits one end of a clasp to the other. And she's wearing goggles. And she hasn't broken stride.

Her face is still cold. She should really stop, take off her helmet (and goggles, now), put on a balaclava of tight-knit wool. Get on fingered gloves while she's at it. But to gear up she'd have to take off her helmet. Clip out of her pedals. Stop riding. That would cool her more. Better to ride on. Ride harder. Ride herself warm. Ride herself home.


***


A big inn by the side of the road. Fresh pine boards, glazed windows, yellow milk-paint. Music coming from inside. Talking, laughing, drinking. A dozen lanterns hanging from a beam, waving in the wind, flickering behind their smoky glass. Just ahead is the wall, twenty feet of broken concrete in a long mound. The stuff of shattered buildings. The rubble of cities. It runs from the river to the lake. Keeps a city safe. Keeps a city free.

There's a gate. Slip hates gates. She hates being locked out of a place. Not as much as she hates being locked in.

Slip will have to dismount, prove her bona fides, maybe pay a toll or a bribe. Get them to lift the gate. Enter the city. Ride through a city at night, dodging police and pack-mules, dogs and drunks. Brush off people who want to sell her things, want her to sell her bike or her secrets or herself. Maybe get dragged to a dinner in her honor or an interrogation before the tyrant's son. Maybe get out alright. Maybe not. Either way: time not moving. Not riding.

She breaks left onto a cart-path. It's flat, packed hard. Better than a lot of pavement she's ridden. The wall rushes by on her right. The light from ramshackle guard-towers is like a comet crossing the sky beside her. Then there's just the lake in front of her, and the lights of the city reflected with the stars.

Then there's pavement beneath her tires. Then there's fields stretching to a dark horizon. Then she turns, and the moon's before her, and the wind's behind her. And she rides.

The wind fills her sails. She pretends she's back on the round. Takes a deep breath. Almost closes her eyes. She sets her pace. Head forward. Legs in fast circles. Trees come. Leaning over the road, graying the moon, blacking the stars, black movement against a black night. She can see nothing but her front tire and the curve of the road. She follows them.

She knows exactly what twenty miles an hour feels like. Knows what thirty feels like. She's not going that fast. She doesn't need to. Doesn't need the burn, tonight, tomorrow. Just up down, up down, into the rising night.

She grows hungry. She eats a salt roll without breaking stride. This makes her hungrier. She drinks a bottle of water in under a minute. She's still hungry. In ten minutes she's not hungry anymore. In half an hour she's ravenous. She eats, she drinks. Never breaks stride.

She crosses through High Epping. It's a market town, a few hundred people, a place to bring beef and potatoes to go inland to Besic or seaward to port and ship. It must be eight o'clock. The town is asleep. A fire burns on a brick watchtower, two lanterns burn before an inn. A tower-guard hails her. His voice sounds of a question, like he isn't sure that she's real. Slip turns her head and looks at the boy. Smiles at him. Waves to him. He calls again, but the woods have swallowed her. Just a cycer passing in the night.

Trees loom overhead. It breaks the wind, which warms her but slows her down. She passes three men on horseback. The horses whinny, shy away from her. She breezes past them. Doesn't see what the men look like. Too busy watching hooves, and then they, and she, are out of sight.

Her muscles begin to cool. It's hard to keep pace. So she sets a grin on her face and rides harder. Rides even faster. Forces herself through the stiffness and the pain. And in ten minutes her head is sweating and her goggles are fogging and her throat is burning and her muscles are warm and the trees are a blur as she rides flying by.

She feels a bump. Shakes it off, keeps pedaling. Feels another and another. Knows just what's happened. Lets herself coast. Quickly feels the bike shake beneath her. Comes to a quick stop. As happens when your have a tube go flat.

She clips out. Pulls off her helmet and stows her goggles. Wipes her head on her shirt. Then she flips the bike over, handlebar and seat on the ground, tires spinning slowly in the night. She sees it on the tire, grabs it, pulls. Holds in her hand a carpenter's nail, fire-black, must be three inches long. She throws it into the woods, hard as she can.

Some cycers keep them, make a necklace of all the things that have popped a tube. Slip doesn't carry three dozen sharp things pressed around her neck. Slip doesn't carry anything she doesn't have to. No extra weight. Every ounce she carries is an ounce she has to push.

She pulls out two tire-tools, little pieces of aluminum with rounded ends. She slips them between the rim of the wheel and the tire. She moves them in opposite directions until they meet on the other side. And the tire pops free.

She pulls the lever on her front axle. She lifts the wheel out. Takes off the tire. Takes out the tube - flat as a crushed snake - and stuffs it in the sack on her rear rack. Plenty of cheap steel in the rubble of the world. Not so much rubber. Waste it now, run out later – and then they're all good and fucked.

The wind crosses her face. An owl calls from the sky.

She goes into her handlebar bag, pulls out a fresh tube. Puts it on the naked wheel. Gets out a little hand pump. Fits it to the tube-valve. Gives the tube just enough air to keep shape, keep it from falling free. Fits the tire on over it. Puts the whole wheel back on the bike. Pumps it by hand. Pumps and pumps until the gauge shows eight bars. Pumps a little more.

Closes the valve. Stows her equipment. Rights her bike.

She clips in, and shoves off, and rides.

It's getting colder. The air is stickier - more humid. Slip hasn't felt anything but bone-dry air in half a year. She knows she's near the sea.

The road turns south. There's a foot-bridge up on wood, half a mile long, crossing over the salt marsh that guards Newbury from the north. She passes a four-story tower, brick, two guardsmen watching the road and the country beyond. Watching for trouble. Almost there.

She passes through one small town, another. Nobody on the streets to slow her down. If she has to stop now she isn't sure she'll be able to start again. But they keep the roads clear, and her tires stay full, and the road passes away beneath her.

More houses, now. Small farms. Dairy-farms. Sniff of sweet salt hanging in the breeze. Her front tire crushes a seashell. She laughs into the night.

A bonfire up ahead. Four guards around it, flames on their faces, canteens of cider in their hands. As one they wave to her. She hasn't time to smile before she's ridden past them, around a tree-trunk roadblock and then another, leaning into the wind, into the city.

She goes over a great bridge. Cold steel below, with log-and-wood suspension above to keep it standing through the years. The river rushes beneath her, carrying moonlight to the sea. And she's inside.


***

A free city. A port city. Rich, worldly, built on traffic and trade. Lamps on every street-corner, and good curbs, and street-signs. Watchmen holding night-sticks walking their beats. She's as safe as she can be.

She should turn around, head into the woods, make camp, sleep with her cleats on ready to jump up and ride away. Or maybe that's just nerves, maybe that's having been too long alone, too many months, too many years. It doesn't matter now. All that matters is making delivery.

She knows the delivery address. She's repeated it to herself for eight months, ever since she made pickup three thousand miles away. Brown Square Hospital. One up from Merrimack between Titcombe and Green.

On the way across the great plains she could hear it on every wind-gust. Up mountains and down she could hear it with every pedal-stroke. Brown Square Hospital. Brown Square Hospital. One up from Merrimack between Titcombe and Green.

Left onto Merrimack. Right onto Titcombe. She fights the urge to keep riding. Go in circles. Keep her haul. It's been with her so long. But it happens every time, even on easy hauls that don't set her six months in the snow. The moment she puts down that package, she stops having a thing to do. A horizon to pedal for. The safety of a reason to keep riding.

She shakes her head, takes one more left and pulls up in front of a great brick building, almost buried in ivy.

There are six horses tied up in front. Two are hitched to phaetons, white with red crosses on their side. There's a little park there, with benches of wood and iron. Bronze lamps burning whale-oil light the night.

There's a bike-rack there, of blackened iron and bands of copper. Slip locks up her bike and, with only a breath's hesitation, unstraps the cargo from her rear rack. She holds it in her hands. Twelve pounds. Twelve pounds she pushed across a continent. So many meals, so much gold, so many days and nights. Twelve pounds, and eight months of her life.

A door opens, two orderlies in white come out to her and begin to take her things. She knows they'll keep them safe. Just as she knows, suddenly and fully, that she's too tired to put up a fight.

The orderlies don't speak beyond a brief good-evening. Hospitals are no stranger to cycers. For deliveries, for care. The only reason they don't see more of them is because the injured ones don't usually make it to a hospital.

They bring her through two great white doors. The lobby is bright as day-light from twin chandeliers and mirrors on the walls. The orderlies stand by with her things. A man in a light gray suit sits behind a desk. He sees her. He stands. Goes into a back room. Within two minutes a woman in a long white coat appears. She doesn't look like she just woke up. More like she's past due to go to sleep.

The doctor comes before her, nods a little. "A scheduled delivery?"

"Little behind schedule."

Her eyes sharpen, see the cycer before her. "From where does this package come to us?"

"Sun Valley."

"But that was-"

Slip nods.

She stares as if at a ghost. But it’s a ghost with drooping eyelids and the smell of sweat and the road. She shakes her head, and reaches forward and claps Slip on the shoulder.

"We had given you up for lost," she says. "We heard... that there was an ambush, of highwaymen, that they gave chase-"

Slip nods. Suddenly she is very tired. Aware that her skin is clammy, her throat is raw, her muscles feel like iron burnt by the forge.

Slip offers out the package. The doctor looks at it for just a moment and then takes it. Holds it in her hands. Then cradles it like a newborn.

"Our supplies were almost..."

She falters.

Slip yawns.

The doctor motions to the gray-suited secretary who brings over a bill of lading. Which the doctor signs, and hands to Slip to countersign and date. Delivery given. Delivery received.

And it is done.

"We keep a room made for cycers," the doctor says. "Would you take it?"

Two minutes later she's alone in a little room with a crackling stove and candles on the fireplace.

Two minutes later the candles are pinched, and Slip is under covers, waiting for sleep.

It must be near midnight. She's ridden all day. One hundred and twenty miles.

A good day's ride.



6


You only get sore when you stop.


Slip wakes with light on her face. Not dawn's rosy fingers but white-gold sun. She must have slept for eleven hours.

She doesn't feel rested. Her throat is hot and sore, her legs ache, her neck and knees and elbows are stiff as bone. Her skin hurts. If not for the call of the chamber-pot she would never have rolled out of bed.

She rode too hard. Or too hard without taking care of herself. Did not eat enough. She should have had four thousand calories, five, of fat and starch and protein. And waited to digest before falling to the bed. And drank half a gallon of water. And washed herself. And stretched, and stretched - a camper once said to her, at night you stretch until you can reach wherever you were that morning. A hundred and twenty miles. Quite a reach.

So she'll suffer today. That's alright. She's suffered worse.

She drains the pitcher she finds on the mantlepiece. The water's warm from the dying of the fire. Next to the pitcher is a stack of swisses, shiny little playing-cards of one part copper to nine parts gold.

Six swisses. Six as were promised. But that was if she delivered in eight weeks. The contract was that she'd be docked a swiss for each week thereafter. Six swisses, minus eight months, and she's lucky they paid her at all.

One swiss, sure. One for her trouble. Two, maybe, for managing to evade capture, not give up the cargo, not smoke it or sell it, not give up. But all six?

She doesn't believe it.

She picks them up, and their weight is true, and they too are warm from the dying fire.


***



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