The Bicycle Hunter

When our wing buds had just begun to show through the backs of our shifts, Theo and I were taken with the other Hunter Aspirants to the Governors’ Mission. It was a two-day journey to the coast—on foot, at least. Theo and I talked of nothing but how swift our return ride home would be along the hard-packed trails, when we would dodge cloying vines and send lizards scurrying.

We were meant to be bicycle Hunters, and had been cradled like the others of our caste in a chrysalis of banana leaves and silk from the golden orb spider. We had played at riding stick bicycles as children. We were ready.

The adults were barred from entering the Mission. They watched us go through the gates with set jaws and fearful eyes. Inside, we were made to stand in line while a squat Governor with furred cheekbones and silver talons examined the strength of our limbs and lungs, and opened our shifts to check the development of our wing buds. He growled happily over Theo’s; mine he passed by without comment. Fear washed over me, but I needn’t have worried. My name was called along with the seven others who were deemed worthy.

When we were led to the stables, Theo was not among us.

The Bicycle Master selected from among her herd of frames. For me, she chose a shy one from the far end of the stable. Even in its undressed form, before the Governors’ workshop added its final components and weaponry, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Some of the lower castes scoff that our bicycles are inanimate, but in the Hunter caste, we are taught that carbon is the building block of all life. And believe me, my bicycle frame flushed as gold as any newborn when I first took it under my palms.

We successful Aspirants rode home together in a wobbly pack—the unsuccessful were to follow us on foot. We would be in training by the time they arrived, and we understood we might not see them again for months.

*

The Hunter caste was the most revered among the Tatoi, and I wore my armbands of golden orb spider silk with pride. We brought home meat, yes, but more than that we waged war on the Lesser Beasts, hunting them in our own humid jungle and out into the grassy plains they called home. I especially loved riding in the plains, catching a tail wind with my wings spread wide, as untethered as a ballooning spider.

Some of us excelled at speed, some at dexterity and tricks, some at accuracy of weapons. I excelled at silence; my prey heard the whirring of my hub only when I allowed it to.

I had a half-dozen kills before my training year was over. I was the youngest of my peers to have my ears notched and throat tattooed, and if I had not been ambushed one spring day I could have become the greatest Hunter of my generation.

Four of us were hunting that day. My companions lay in wait while I circled to the far side of the meadow, where a group of Lesser Beasts were foraging. It was a simple trap we’d used before. I approached in silence, then freewheeled near one of the younger females. At her warning the whole herd bolted, shouting to one another, with their young clutched to their chests.

I used the natural ramp of a buttressed root to turn, cutting sharply to chase down the female. She sprinted across a knot of roots—a common ploy—then flung herself over a clear patch of ground toward the jungle. Too late I realized the trap. My front wheel plummeted into the pit and I was thrown free, my feet wrenched from the clips.

I lay stunned a moment, winded, a searing pain in my left wing where the membrane had torn. When I opened my eyes, three spears pointed at my throat.

“We should kill her,” a man’s voice said. “We have the bicycle.”

“Wait.” A tattoo-faced, freakishly old Beast female squatted next to me, her white braids grown mossy, bark beginning to spread from her hairline.

I was repulsed. With that much bark growth, soon this Beast would begin to take root and die the slow painful death of her kind. If I had my weapon I would have killed her out of mercy.

“See how she looks at you, Nuana,” said the first man. His spear dug into my throat. “She’d kill you if she had a chance.”

I caught a startling scent and twisted my head toward the speaker. I found myself looking straight into the glassy wide-set eyes of a Tatoi man. More astonishingly, he had the tattooed necklace and ear notches of the Hunter caste.

This was not a Beast tribe. This was a splinter group of rebels. Fear thrilled through me.

The Beast female hauled herself back up, her woody limbs crackling with the effort. “We take her. You were young once, too, Yia.”

They marched me with my hands tied behind my back, a specially-made netting harnessing my wings. My forearm throbbed, blood dripping from a dirt-filled gash. My torn left wing screamed with every step.

The disgraced bicycle hunter followed behind, his filthy hands guiding my bicycle. As far as I could tell, it was still ridable. The front wheel needed truing, and the right brake lever looked mangled but reparable. The firing mechanisms behind it were likely destroyed beyond my abilities to repair without the proper tools, however.

The rebels camped in the rocky hills above the plain. I had not known anyone lived there—it is where Beasts go to die. We marched through slopes covered with twisted, tortured-looking thorn trees that had once been alive, and the Beasts in the group touched their branches reverently. I looked away.

Other traitor Tatoi met us at the camp, their gossamer wings dull from malnutrition. Their ear notches indicated all number of castes, from Mechanics to Weavers to Nursery Workers. I saw no other Hunters, save myself and the disgraced man.

They tied me to a tree. If I craned my head, I could watch the other Hunter examine my bicycle along with one of the Mechanics. It remained lifeless under their hands as they straightened its bent handlebars and adjusted the derailleur.

As night fell, the old Beast female brought me food. I could not eat with my hands tied, and was at first too proud to let her help me. Hunger won over pride, eventually.

After a few bites, I tilted my chin at the bark at her hairline. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

“My mehaiyu?”

“The bark.”

“A little. But it’s part of me.”

“I thought it killed you Beasts.”

Her tattooed eyebrows raised. “It transforms us. And yes, the transformation is painful. You Tatoi don’t remember yours, as it happens at the beginning of your lives. But for the Manaru, it is at the end.” She lifted her gaze to the branches above us. “This tree you’re tied to, she is my aunt.”

She smiled as I shuddered, revolted.

*

I was tied to the tree for three days. When the sun beat down on our dusty rock outcropping the Beast female, Nuana, brought me shade. When meals were cooked, she brought me food and helped me eat. When the sun was snuffed out for the night she brought me a blanket woven from rank-smelling wool.

On the morning of the fourth day, the disgraced bicycle Hunter, Yia, came to wake me.

I spat in the dust at his feet. “What’ve you done with my bicycle?”

“Repaired it.”

“It belongs to me.”

“It belongs to the Governors.” The slits of his nostrils flared. “And so do you.”

“I earned it!”

“Listen to yourself, girl.” His wings rustled in irritation. “You’ve been nothing but a tool to the Governors, and the only reason you’re still alive now is because you may still be a useful tool for us.” His gaze flickered over and past me, to where I knew my bicycle was chained. Lust burned in his glassy eyes, but not for me.

I watched him walk away. Like a bird-spider watches her prey, I thought. Biding her time to leap.

That afternoon, Nuana put me to work. Washing and weaving, mostly. Nothing I could gain a weapon from. Nothing I couldn’t do with my hands and feet still hobbled.

One of the other Tatoi, with the ear notches of a Nursery Worker, came to help. Something in the quirk of his jaw reminded me of Theo.

He asked the name of my tribe and told me his; he had come from nearer to the coast, where the Governors had first settled. “My grandfather was one of the first to see them,” he said. “He was trading at a Manaru market when he saw their ship burning through the sky.”

“Trading with the Beasts?” I laughed. “What would we want from them, twigs and moss?”

The man blinked slowly, the membrane clouding his glassy eyes. “They’re skilled weavers,” he said. He jutted his chin at my silk armbands, which gleamed in the bright sunlight. “They wove those. No matter how hard they try, we Tatoi still haven’t learned how to milk golden orb spiders. I can tell your armbands are real, but since the wars began the Nurseries have had to dye worm silk yellow to swaddle Hunter larvae.”

I shuddered. Worm silk? “You lie.”

“It’s an odd thing to lie about.”

I plunged myself back into the washing. “I won’t talk to a traitor.” I could feel him watching me, but I refused to look up. After a moment, he unfolded himself and left.

I scrubbed furiously. What would be a worse truth: that Hunters today were swaddled in falsely dyed cloth, or that our grandparents had been swaddled in cloth woven by the same Beasts we hunted now? I stared at the band on my arm, remembering how proud I had been to take it, and how Theo—

Heavy footsteps approached, and I turned to see Nuana. “I think you’ve managed to clean that one,” she said, and I stopped scrubbing, realizing how thoroughly I’d been working the same spot while I thought.

“I was remembering a friend,” I said. “He didn’t become a Hunter.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Some of us pass the tests, some don’t.”

She tilted her head. In only the few days that I’d been here the bark had closed in another finger’s width, curling in along the lines of her facial tattoos. She didn’t have much time left to live.

Or, as Nuana had put it, she didn’t have much time until her transformation. She had told me the day before that I was putting the old Beasts out of certain misery, but I had actually been denying them their true form. Like murdering a Tatoi larvae in its chrysalis, she had said. Obviously another lie, but— I shoved the sick feeling in my belly aside, and reached for another pot.

“Do you know what happens to those who do not pass?”

“They have lesser callings.” I scrubbed. “I’ve been in training. I’ve not seen them to ask.”

The beads in Nuana’s mossy braids clacked as she sat beside me, taking up the Nursery Worker’s scrubbing brush. “They never return. The Governors take our young back to their home planet—the Tatoi, especially. They value your wings and beauty. We Manaru they use in the mines and factories.”

“That’s not true.”

“They give you the bicycles, the guns, the radios. What do you think you give them in return?”

“The Tatoi taught them to survive when they first landed here. The Governors are grateful.”

“They’re not grateful. They use you to hunt us, and they use us to distract you.”

“That’s not true,” I said again. We finished the washing in silence.

That night, I looked into the stars, imagining Theo there in chains, his wings displayed for someone else’s pleasure. If I had been less skilled, my legs shorter…. A thought struck me. The Governors had paid special attention to the development of our wings—hardly a trait needed for a skilled bicycle Hunter. I remembered the pleasure they had shown at Theo’s.

I felt a chill, and pulled the musky blanket closer. What if I had been as beautiful as he? The stars twinkled overhead, cold and dead. The branches of Nuana’s aunt’s tree rustled, sending a single leaf to fall beside me.

*

The next morning, when Nuana came to untie me, I turned to put my palms on her aunt’s tree. I felt nothing.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

Nuana looked at me slantwise. “We need weapons and strong riders, and we must act fast”

“You should have killed me. Yia can ride as well as I.” Her words caught my attention. “Why must you act fast?”

“It’s spring,” she said simply.

Spring, when the Aspirants were marched to the Governors’ Mission to imprint their bicycles. Spring, when those who failed were culled to serve among the stars. I shivered.

If I believed what this Lesser Beast was telling me…

That afternoon, Yia returned from his daily hunt early and empty-handed. He smelled of jungle, not the plains as he usually did, something the Lesser B—Manaru would never notice with their poor senses of smell. “I’ll take the girl with me hunting tomorrow,” he said to Nuana, ignoring me.

“I don’t think she’s ready.”

Yia’s wings shivered in annoyance. Or nerves. “I’ll see that she’s under guard. We don’t have much time left, and there’s new tech on her bicycle that I’m not familiar with. I need her to show me how to use it.”

I could smell something else on him besides jungle. A faint scent from my childhood, salty and pungent and furred. Governors?

“She can show you here, Yia.”

He turned his glassy eyes on me, his nostril slits pulsing once, then again. “Fine.” He spun and stalked away.

*

I was woken before dawn when my blanket was torn off. Rough hands clamped over my mouth and ankles. I saw the glint of a knife, and the hobble at my ankles was cut. Yia crouched there, the bulk of his weight trapping my legs. Someone I could not see, though they smelled Tatoi, had one hand over my mouth while the other clamped onto my bound wrists.

“You’re coming with us,” Yia whispered. “Nuana will never give you your freedom, but if you help us I will. We must ride. You’ll be silent?”

Ride? My heart thrilled at that, and I nodded. I didn’t believe him in the slightest, but with unhobbled ankles and my bicycle….  His friend hauled me to my feet, jostling my torn wing. I bit back a yelp. I raised my hobbled hands to Yia. “Later,” he said.

They supported me as I stumbled, my legs aching as I took real steps for the first time in a week. Yia unlocked my bicycle then mounted it, his fingers caressing the stem, trailing down the fork to check the tire pressure.

My bicycle was unresponsive beneath him. What had they done to it?

“Yia?” I tore my attention away from my lifeless bicycle to see Nuana. “What are you doing?” Her voice was loud, carrying. Behind her, the camp began to stir.

Yia’s fingers inched toward the brake lever, to the row of weapons controls on the underside. Had he repaired them? His thumb brushed over the buttons, experimentally. Nuana did not notice.

“I already told you I was taking the girl out today,” said Yia. He shifted, and I did, too. The Tatoi who held my shoulders had relaxed his grip, distracted. “I’ll have her back by sundown.”

“How long have you been hoping for this?” she asked softly. “Pretending to help, waiting for a chance to steal back to your masters?”

“They’re not my masters.” He yanked the front wheel to face her and I launched myself at him, my shoulder driving into his sternum. His shot went wild, flaring into the early morning air. We fell in a tangle of bodies and wings and bicycle, my torn left wing sending a nauseating wave of pain through me. I had landed on top, and I twisted, wrenching my upper body up to drive my elbow into his throat. Yia gurgled, then sucked for air as I planted both hands in his chest and pushed myself off him. I slashed my wrist hobble on my scythed front hub. He convulsed as I pulled my bicycle free.

It flushed gold and I felt giddy with relief. I turned its weaponry onto my other Tatoi abductor, who froze with hands raised. Behind him, the newly-gathered crowd shrunk back. I was nearly free. I almost laughed.

Only Nuana stood in my way, bleeding amber sap from her upper arm. She panted, nearly doubled from pain.

I tensed with one foot on the pedal, choosing my route so as not to strike her and injure her more.

“It’s spring,” she said softly, and stepped out of my path. She looked up to the sky. The last of the stars were fading as the sun rose.

I followed her gaze and felt a sudden vertigo as I imagined Theo viewing the stars from above, looking into an alien night sky to see our own home world twinkling impossibly far away.

I could chart a clear path past Nuana, but beyond that it became murky in my mind. Would I return to my tribe and continue to hunt the Manaru? Or would I confront my elders about secret yellow dye vats, the Governors, Theo?

“I need proof,” I said.

Nuana nodded. “We can give you that.”

“And the bicycle stays with me.”

Nuana took an unsteady breath. “You’ll forgive us if we don’t entirely trust you.”

“Likewise.”

She laughed at that. “Put down your weapons, Hunter, and let’s see if we can learn trust.”

Overhead, the last of the stars was snuffed by the rising sun. I leaned my bicycle reverently against the tree that had been Nuana’s aunt, then caressed the top tube. A trail of gold followed my fingertips. “Soon,” I whispered, “we’ll ride after a different sort of prey.”

The gold pulsed. I turned back to Nuana.

“Tell me. I’ll listen.”