Bikes to New Sarjun

Gretchen Storm remembers her first taste of a bike’s freedom back on Arquelle. She remembers scraped knees and bloody palms, she remembers flying down hills after her cousins, training wheels skidding in the gravel as the older kids vanished in the distance. She remembers her mother washing gravel out of her gouged knees, murmuring over the sound of Gretchen’s sobs while trying to differentiate the black of blood from the black of tiny sharp pebbles.

The half-starved colony kids in Gretchen’s classroom will never know that this is the memory she holds so vivid and shining at the forefront of her thoughts when she tells them that they, too, will get bicycles. She’s willing to admit she must have a bit of a sadistic streak, just a touch, but she knows that after the first humbling tumbles and scrapes, these kids will taste freedom, too.

Freedom for the ones walking miles to the schoolhouse, the miles to the well. With bicycles, they can carry more produce to market, and maybe a few more of those empty desks will be filled with smart kids who get pulled out to help with harvest.

Freedom is in the air, all right. High in the atmosphere. Dazzling and bright, freedom is one of the hundreds of glittering points of light that glide across the night skies of New Sarjun. Freedom is trapped, abandoned by a now-dissolved shipping company; nearly two hundred bicycles bound up in an orbiting cargo module drifting untethered and aimless and waiting—forever, maybe—for someone to come claim them.

*

Gretchen is in a bind. Her Bikes to New Sarjun project had struck a chord throughout the Durga System, even back on Arquelle, the capitol planet. Her employer, Hypatia Educational Facilities Corporation, had even offered to match donations; when the PR team ran wild with a retouched photo of her at the head of a classroom full of smudge-faced colony kids—<em>Hypatia Corp: Freedom from debt, free to change the world</em>—the donations had come pouring in.

The Hypatia Corp superintendent on New Sarjun hinted that if things went well (and Gretchen continued to make Hypatia Corp look good) Gretchen might be in a position to renegotiate her contract, slice a few years off her indenture, maybe, or get hired on at one of Hypatia’s schools in the central planets. And that would have been fantastic, truly.

Things were not going well.

When Gretchen found a company willing to ship the bikes from Arquelle for almost a third less than the closest competitor, she’d leapt at the opportunity. The money she’d saved on shipping bought nearly fifty more bikes, nearly fifty more chances at a better life for some colony kid. It would have been stupid to pass it up.

She was flying high as the arrival date neared—until a letter arrived from New Sarjun Customs Enforcement, informing her that her lowest-bidder shipping company had been dissolved for import tax evasion.

<em>We regret to inform you that your shipment will be held on orbit until salvage fees are paid. </em>

On orbit.

Hypatia Corp was not going to like being associated with this.

The local customs agent told her she could pay Customs Enforcement to bring it down—at a rate double her yearly salary. “If that’s too expensive, there are always the independent salvage operations,” he said, handing her a list. “These are ones we’ve cleared for operations. We can’t guarantee their quality, however.”

In a town like this, it seems everyone knows someone who flies salvage ops for cash. “My uncle will do it for cheap,” said Paulo Kulikutan, the shining star among her students. The one who always showed up for class, always had his homework done, always knew the answers. Even, apparently, if the answer were not quite legal.

And so, if Gretchen is honest with herself, Paulo is the innocent reason she’s found herself hurtling god-knows-where in the back of a spinner, bound and hooded and sandwiched between two thugs, nauseated by fish on the breath of the one, by the cologne-drenched reek of last night’s moonshine wafting from the pores of the other.

*

The address Paulo gave for his uncle’s salvage company was in a shady section of the docks, a shabby office Gretchen almost missed, tucked as it was between the misspelled posters of a fried noodle stand and the sizzlingly graphic neon of a porn shop. Beto Kulikutan wore an ikat-print lumosilk shirt open to the navel, smooth skin and a flash of gold medallion visible beneath. He didn’t bother to stand when she came in, just leaned back in his chair, gold-tipped boots on his desk crumpling papers beneath.

“Ain’t the usual,” Beto said after she told him her story.

“You bring down the bikes, you can keep whatever else is up there,” Gretchen said. “That’s the only way I can pay you.” In her mind she saw containers full of medical supplies and school sports equipment and textbooks. She quelled feelings of guilt.

“Ain’t you Paulo’s teacher? This under the table work don’t seem like something a teacher oughta do.”

“My kids need those bikes,” she said. “And I bet you could get quite the haul.” In her mind she imagined other destitute program directors just like herself, staring up at the sky and wondering how to retrieve their Sewing Machines to New Sarjun, their Water Purifiers to New Sarjun.

She shook the thought away. If those imaginary program directors had any sense, they’d be doing just what she was doing right now.

Beto Kulikutan wove his fingers behind his head and gave her a long, hard look. “You pay fuel.”

“Done.”

“And you don’t ask questions bout what we find.”

Gretchen was fine with that. She very desperately did not want to know.

*

They haven’t harnessed her in. Gretchen is thrown around like a rag doll, the spinner’s dizzying lurches cushioned by one meaty shoulder on the right, one bony shoulder on the left. She wonders if Beto Kulikutan is driving, but she was hooded when she was thrown inside. The spinner skids around another corner and she smashes into the skinny thug once more. His response is a needle-sharp elbow to the ribs. Gretchen rights herself just as the spinner banks to the left, and the meaty one’s arm braces across her sternum.

“Who are you working for?” Meathead, the cologne-drenched thug on the right, still has a Arquellian accent.

“The Carama County School District.” Gretchen’s voice comes out muffled through the hood. It’s the fifth, eighth time she’s said it—she’s losing track in her terror. It’s not the right answer, though, because Scrawny backhands her.

“Nah, sweetheart. Who sent you?” She has no idea—absolutely none—what they’re hoping the answer will be. She hears a high-pitched whine at the flick of a switch—it sounds like one of the laser guns you see in vids—and what she imagines to be the gun’s barrel presses against her jaw.

“No one!” Gretchen screams.

The spinner screeches to a halt, and Gretchen slams into the seat in front of her, sliding to the floor in a heap.

*

Light stabs at her eyes as the hood is ripped away. A staticky blur of colors slowly resolves itself into recognizable shapes: a bolted-down metal desk; on top, a coat draped over a globe-like object; Beto Kulikutan in peacock blue beside.

An old man perches on the desk’s edge, and Gretchen recognizes his face from news vids. In the vids there’s always a still shot of him through the window of some luxury spinner, captioned with things like: “Four mutilated bodies found in Dockside. Suspected link to local mob boss Willem Jaantzen.”

Jaantzen sees the fear on her face and smiles.

Gretchen can see tomorrow’s news vid: “Hypatia Corp teacher found mutilated in Dockside.” She’s beyond fucked. She tries to swallow, speak, but her throat is blazing dry with fear.

“The dear needs a drink of water,” Jaantzen says, but no one moves to get her one. He folds his hands on one knee. “So. You’re the ‘teacher.’”

“Hypatia Corp,” Gretchen blurts out. “Carama County School District.”

Jaantzen nods to Meathead, who sets his hands with unsettling gentleness on Gretchen’s shoulders. “You don’t like things easy, do you?”

“Fourth level—I teach, I teach math, and—” Meathead drums his fingers on her collar bones.

“You seem like a smart girl, Ms. Storm. So explain to me why you sent my men to pick up a cargo module full of <em>these</em>.” Jaantzen plucks the coat off the desk.

Gretchen’s eyes go wide.

A sealed sphere sits there, it’s just about the size of an astronaut’s helmet and inside there’s a creature that could be a human fetus—if humans had fish tails and leathery wings tipped with razor-sharp claws. It’s floating in a liquid that glows a faintly pulsing pink. Dead, Gretchen thinks, but when she leans to take a closer look it opens its eyes and stares right at her.

Gretchen shrieks.

Jaantzen puts his face close to the creature’s and turns to look at Gretchen, too. Two pairs of equally alien eyes regard her. “Explain clearly, now,” Jaantzen says. “I never did get along well in class.”

“I just wanted the bikes. I don’t know about any other cargo.”

“No?”

Meathead begins to squeeze, a massage gone bad. Keep it together, Gretchen, but what can she possibly tell them, what do they—

“And what,” Jaantzen says, “the fuck is this thing?”

Her right collar bone screams with fire in the spot where she broke it in a bike crash—<em>god damn those miserable things</em>.

“Is this ‘teacher’ a customs agent in disguise?” Jaantzen leans forward until she can smell the mint on his breath. The creature tilts its head at her through the curve of its bowl.

“No!” Meathead squeezes until tears come to her eyes. “I mean I don’t—I don’t work for them. But they told me about you!”

Jaantzen glances at Meathead and the pressure on her collar bones lessens. Slightly. “About us?”

Gretchen takes a pair of ragged breaths. “They gave me a list, salvage operations that would get the bikes.” The slick bastard shifts to sit on his desk, flipping the coat back over the captured creature. The screaming pain in her collar bone slackens. Okay. “When I found out about the bikes being held on orbit, I went to Customs. I couldn’t afford what they wanted as a salvage fee, we’re a non-profit, we’re all on donations. It’s for the kids.” Jaantzen looks dangerously bored. “They gave me a list of salvage ops that might do it.”

“And Customs told you to entice them with salvage from the other cargo modules?”

“I thought that would convince you.”

“We were on the list?”

Meathead squeezes. “Yes!” Gretchen screams.

“And you chose us why?”

<em>Because of Paulo</em>, but there’s no way she’ll say that. Behind Jaantzen, she sees Beto watching her. His face is carefully uninterested, but one gold-tipped boot is tapping. <em>Nervous, you bastard?</em>

“I called some others, no one else would do it.” That was true enough, and Jaantzen seems appeased for the moment. With her, at least.

“This was careless of you, Mr. Kulikutan,” Jaantzen says, and Beto’s dark face loses a shade.

“Aw, boss—”

“Did you let the pretty lady get your guard down?”

“You have to believe me,” Gretchen says. <em>Yes, let the pretty lady get your guard down</em>. “I can give you the list.”

“You will.” Jaantzen gives her a long, evaluating look. Meathead’s hands are still on her shoulders, but all pressure is gone. “You are quite far in over your head, Ms. Storm. And you’ll have farther to go, I think.”

A surge of hope. Meathead pats her on the shoulder. Hope and dread, really, churning there in the pit of her stomach. She’ll throw up, she knows it, if Scrawny gets anywhere close to her with his fish sandwich breath. “What do you want from me?”

“Someone in Customs Enforcement has just tried to set us up. You, my dear, are going to find out who.” Jaantzen stands, buttons his suit jacket. “We’ll be calling.”

The hood smothers her once more.

*

The handcuffs stay off this time, at least, though Beto’s driving—it was Beto in the pilot seat earlier—is as ruthless as before. Gretchen tightens her harness.

Beto skids to a stop in front of her house, and Meathead lets her out. “Walk ya to the door,” says Beto, holding out an elbow she doesn’t take. He doesn’t miss a stride. “So these bicycles, you just bring em in kids sizes, or what?”

Gretchen glances over her shoulder at him. “You want to ride one?”

“Yeah, you know. I had one back in New Manila. Gave me 14 stitches.” He grins, shoving up his sleeve up to the elbow so she can see the scar snaking along his forearm. “Dangerous little shits. Fun, though. Ain’t freedom if there ain’t a bit of danger.”

“I suppose.” They’re at her doorway now, and he leans casually in as she fumbles for her keys. He’s angled so he blocks her view of the spinner. His expression shifts, suddenly serious. “You done me good leaving Paulo out of things. Thank you.”

“Oh. I—”

“You seen that alien or whatever it is. Something’s going on goes deeper than a customs sting.” His voice is soft, his gaze searching her face. “You got a pen?” Then the laughter is back in his expression, and he takes both the pen and the hand it’s in with a flourish. He jots a string of numbers on her palm, along with the words <em>u need me</em>.

“Give me a call sometime, you get lonely. It can get lonely, ain’t it, you in over your head with no one to talk to.”

He flashes her a wink and turns to thump his chest to the other thugs as he walks back. Gretchen can hear Scrawny hooting as she closes her door: “Man, she outta your league, man.”

She sinks down with her back against the door. Her collar bone aches, lip stings and tastes of blood, but it’s the palm of her hand that has her attention. It tingles from the press of Beto’s fingers, like they’re—what? A spark of hope? Or a deeper, spiraling trap? <em>U need me</em>. Can she trust him? She thinks not.

But she’s survived this adventure thus far and she thinks, just maybe, she can trust herself to see it through.

The ink is smudging already, seeping out into the lines in her palm. She copies the number down before it’s smeared beyond deciphering.

Maybe trust is the new price of freedom, she thinks.

Trust that as you fly with reckless abandon down those hills your brakes won’t fail, your frame won’t crack, or at least someone will be there to slap some stitches on when you lay yourself down in the gravel.

*  *  *

<em>TO BE CONTINUED…</em>