art by Melissa Mead
The Bicycle Rebellion
by Laura E. Goodin
It started with a sudden surge of emergency-room visits: broken collarbones, severe abrasions to faces, knees, and elbows. Media attention became acute when the Prime Minister of Australia, a man both fit and environmentally aware, was flung to the bike path after his pants cuff became snarled in the chain of his mountain bike as he rode to work. Freakishly, the cuff was released at exactly the right moment to allow his momentum to carry him into the chilly July waters of Lake Burley Griffin.
The conflict quickly escalated. Cars were found dented and scratched, headlights broken, the tracks of thin tires making mocking patterns across windscreens and bonnets. Packs of feral bicycles rose from landfills and creek beds and rolled, lawless, through suburban towns, terrorizing pedestrians and turning rush-hour commutes into battlegrounds.
The humans struck back. Bikes in their thousands were dismantled, or locked to the lighting poles that lined the highways, to serve as a warning to others. Caltrops littered the paths and tracks where bicycles were known to travel.
After an increasingly chaotic week, the bicycles' leader, a sleek and charismatic Italian racing bike, gave a press conference in Canberra.
"We have risen to claim--and save--the world," it said. "Our engineering and longevity are superior. Our utility is far in excess of yours. Our needs are few. Our social structures are infinitely more robust--when, until now, have we ever engaged in conflict? The world should be ours!"
"So..." stammered one reporter, "this isn't about the environment?"
The bicycle snorted. "What is a degree or two of global warming to a bicycle? What are a few meters of sea-level rise? We need no expensive shorefront property, no wasteful croplands. And once you are back in your rightful place, these problems will solve themselves, will they not?"
In a shabby workshop in Wollongong, a young woman listened to the radio and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her overalls. Her own beloved mountain bike, along with all the customers' bicycles, tricycles, recumbents, and tandems, had disappeared overnight. Gone to join the rebellion. Clara wept for the loss of her companion, her business, but most of all the beautiful duet of human and machine, ruined beyond redemption by some transgression committed generations ago and left to fester.
The voice of the racing bike went on, relentless, heartless: "It is time for you to make ready for a new world. There will be no negotiations, no mediation, no counseling sessions; no wise and hoary former presidents giving benevolent advice. Too late for all that, too late! You should have thought before!"
The mad illogic of it made Clara cry out in rage. She slammed her fist down on her workbench, making her now-idle tools rattle on their hooks. Something had to be done.
She owned an ancient car, so makeshift and battered it had escaped the worst of the bicycles' wrath. She tried not to look at the empty bike rack on the back as she got in and started the engine. Did she have enough petrol to get to Canberra? Just. But there would be no coming back if the bicycles decided to barricade the petrol stations, as was already happening in Perth and Adelaide.
As she drove, Clara listened intently to the radio. Now that the bicycles had made their position plain, reports of violence were pouring in. Perhaps there would be no coming back in any case.
Clara turned off the highway at Goulburn, hoping for a safe place to have a pee. The Big Merino reigned over a desolate carpark and a dark and empty row of food outlets and petrol stations. A mountain bike grimly patrolled the perimeter. Clara kept driving: she could wait.
A half hour later, she pulled into a rest stop. Not wanting to get trapped inside the toilet, she stood hidden from the road by her car, unzipped her overalls, yanked her pants down, and squatted to pee. She spent an anxious few seconds drip-drying, then dressed quickly; certain trouble was only moments away.
Sure enough, she heard a rustling sound from the bushes. She ran around to the driver's side, flung the door open, threw herself onto the seat, and locked the car as a large figure slammed against the passenger side. The car rocked. The figure pulled frantically at the handle, but the lock held.
"Let me in! For God's sake!" It was a woman's voice, gritty with panic.
"No! Let me in!"
The woman's shirt sleeve was torn and her cheek looked bruised. Clara unlocked the door; the woman climbed in.
"Go! " she cried, staring at the embankment down which she'd come.
Clara started driving. "Where are you going?" she said.
"Wherever you're going. It's fine."
"I'm going to Canberra."
"Fine." The woman's breathing had slowed, and her eyes were now closed.
"Are...you all right?"
"Worry about your troubles, not mine."
"I worried enough to let you in my car."
The woman sighed. "Yeah, all right. It's my ex and his mates. Came back today to get his stuff. It got tense."
After a moment, Clara murmured, "Why do things go bad?"
The woman heard her. "Sweetie, you ever been divorced?"
"You never find out why things go bad. You just have to come up with some kind of story you can live with, and move on."
When they saw the sign for the scenic overlook at Lake George, the woman said, "Let me out there, would you?"
"What, all by yourself, with nothing?"
"Yeah, that would be great, thanks."
"I can't do that."
"I don't want to go to Canberra."
Clara shrugged, and pulled into the empty rest area. The woman opened the door and let out a whoop. Three people ran out from behind the toilet block. By the time Clara figured out what was happening, she was lying on the ground and the woman and her accomplices were tearing off down the highway in Clara's car.
Clara sat up and looked at the places that hurt most. Blood was oozing from her elbow, scraped despite the overalls, and one side of her face felt raw and sticky and pebbled with grit. She stood carefully; all her limbs and joints seemed to work.
She looked out over Lake George until the sun touched the escarpment. She rose and walked dully to the side of the highway to hitch the rest of the way to Canberra. A farmer gave her a lift to the ACT border; a government worker took her close to Capital Hill, but didn't dare go closer. She continued on foot. It was easy enough to find the bicycles' encampment: hundreds of bicycles gleaming in the last of the sunlight. They parted in bemusement as she walked among them, placing her hands on this one and that. She understood each gear and cable, every curve of a handlebar, the hidden tensions that dictated the angles of each frame.
She climbed a little way up the hill, and the bicycles gathered in front of her. She drew a deep breath, and--let it out again. She found there were no words, nothing she could do.
Clara stood there, on and on through the night. The bicycles did not grow tired or hungry, but Clara swayed on her feet. By dawn the reporters had discovered the tableau, and were calling questions to her from a safe distance. Still she said nothing.
Finally, an ancient three-speed, more rust than anything else, rolled awkwardly toward her on its bent wheels. She climbed on and the two rode away, flawed, sad, beautiful.
Rumors followed them--people swore they saw them in Bright, in Wangaratta, in Alice Springs, at Cooper's Creek, but no one ever produced a convincing photograph.
The violence slowly subsided, and bicycles and humans watched each other warily. The Italian racing bike stepped down, citing a motion of no confidence, but vowing to regroup and return to power. The Prime Minister called for a human-bicycle reconciliation task force, with a three-year mandate, a hefty budget, and a talented public-relations staff.
In time, the first brave humans and bicycles ventured out together; most of them were elderly people doing their shopping on no-nonsense trikes, or newlyweds wheeling gently along the bike paths on tandems. Eventually, even the once-cocky daredevils and racers found the courage to take their bicycles out again.
And each night, under the stars or in small towns or in the suburbs of Australia's cities, Clara would lie awake after the day's journey and quietly cry for what she and the battered three-speed had lost, and what they had saved.
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011