The Runner
by Elly Blue

“It’s called a bicycle,” Merry said proudly. 

The contraption sat at the edge of the Covenant Town Runners’ yard, an awkward collection of angles and rounds in a perplexing combination of bamboo and the new compounds. I leaned forward, as close as I could get without touching it, my breath quick. I couldn’t put the pieces together in my mind until she started pointing them out—the seat, the wheels, the steering, the foot-powered crank, the shelf to strap your bag—and then suddenly it burst into my mind, a shining whole, like the day when I was a child and the solar forge was unveiled and I knew the world would never be the same.

“I get it!” I exclaimed, probably too loudly because all five people in the clearing turned away from the bicycle to look at me. Merry, the hotshot up-and-coming Covenant Council engineer, smiled kindly. Chimes and Beyond, our senior Runners, gave me their usual more-or-less tolerant looks. Fruit, the other junior Runner, winced and glared at me—though Fruit of Our Labor has shown me only her hardest edges since we were babies together and I don’t worry too much about it. 

“See,” I said, “that crank system, it enhances the power. It’s like the clothes-washing machine, but for running. And instead of solar, the energy source is us. You could do all your rounds in less time, and eat less. And sweat less.” I felt sparks coming off the fire of my brain. I could see it all so clearly. “You could run all the way to Healers Town and then spend the entire day with your friends there instead of eating and turning around to come back. Right?” I looked over to Merry. 

She grinned. I’ve known Merry Death since we were babies, too. We would be engineers together if my passion for tech hadn’t concerned our teachers about my morality. She had been there to witness the all the stern lectures from Collaboration after my idea for a dish cleaning machine backfired (to be fair, it did take a month to fix the solar forge after that one), various more successful but unauthorized improvements to other machines (in my defense, some of them were approved by the Council later), and that final incident of the highly functional handheld rock-throwing machine. It would have made hunting a lot easier, but Magnificent still can’t hear out of her left ear. I myself have heard no end since then about how we have the Covenant for good reasons, and putting technology before community is what brought the ancients to a fiery, radioactive end. That’s when I was assigned to be a Runner. So now I put what Collaboration called my “excesses of energy and enthusiasm” to use where I can do no harm: delivering mundane personal greetings, banal community news, tedious council mandates, and spreading Covenant-approved engineering blueprints I’ll never get to actually build. Merry and I have drifted apart in the three years since then, but she’s always been friendly, even when I get jealous, pushy, or carried away. I definitely was a mix of all those things right now.

“Plenty’s right,” Merry said. “Though we hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way. We were hoping to expand how far you can go in a day, actually. A distance-shrinking machine has been one of the Covenant Council’s priorities for a couple of years, and this is the first prototype that’s ready for testing in the field. At least we hope so. The historical diagrams we’re working with are excellent, but some of the components have proven difficult to produce. The outer rim of the wheels, for instance—” 

“Let me interrupt you right there,” said Fruit, rising a bit taller as she always does when she thinks she’s caught someone in the wrong, her favorite hobby. “You’re saying that this ancient contraption is going to replace people who have been running for our entire lives? We’re already fast. And this pile of anti-Covenant junk”—she sneered—“I don’t know what the Council was thinking when they approved it, but it looks like it would fall apart the first time it hit a rock. And I pity whoever’s butt is on it—the person using it is going to be one giant bruise.”

Beyond, who’d been contemplating the machine quietly up until now, lost her patience. “Oh come on, Fruit, you haven’t even seen it work yet. You don’t need to shit on everyone’s picnic. Give Merry a chance to show us.”

There was a general hubbub of agreement. Everyone, even Fruit, wanted to see how the bicycle worked. I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. I had some very specific ideas about how it might steer. “Can I try it first?” I said, definitely too loudly this time, interrupting whatever Merry had been about to say. She laughed and said, “Do you want me to give you a demonstration first or do you want to just hop on and give it a go?” 

“I’ll just— May I—” My arms twitched, but I managed to restrain myself from grabbing hold of it. She adjusted the cranks and then guided my hands each to one end of the steering rod, showed me how to stand on one of the log seats in the yard and swing one leg across the back. I sat astride it. I did not feel at all graceful or floating or at one with the machine like I’d imagined I would. The padded board that served as a seat ground into my crotch and the bicycle threatened to fall over if I didn’t hold my arms stiffly.

“Put your foot on the lower pedal, yes, like that,” advised Merry. “Then you want to sort of push forward off the log and step down onto the higher pedal at the same time. That should give you the momentum to—”

I took a deep breath, gripped the ends of the steering rod, and gave a mighty kick off the log. Next thing I knew I was sprawled on the ground, improbably tangled up in various parts that had come out of their previously harmonious arrangement. My face became very hot.

“That’s all I needed to see,” said Fruit nastily.

I picked myself up, feeling the fire in me flare again, suddenly blue-hot. “I challenge you, Fruit of our Labor.” I was surprised by how quiet and steady it came out.

This got everyone excited, much more so than the bicycle on its own. There are some things that Runners as a rule just aren’t capable of passing up, like an extra helping of food—or the opportunity for a race. 

It was quickly settled that Fruit and I would race the Healers Town route during the regular message run in two days’ time. She would run unassisted and I would harness the powerful leverage of our new machine. The day in between would give Chimes a chance to run ahead, share the news, and wait on the other end to judge our arrivals. And it would give me time, which Fruit snidely claimed would be insufficient, to learn to ride the bicycle. 

Normally I like to figure things out for myself, but given the time constraint and my determination to win, I let Merry help me learn. She started by showing me how the propulsion worked—a bamboo rod attached to the cranks on one end turned the rear wheel as you pedaled. This mechanism was the controversial part of the tech, the thin end of the wedge traditionalist jerks like Fruit disapproved of because it could lead us into the same mistakes that had destroyed the ancients. Not that I had ever heard Fruit complain about the similar mechanism on the solar clothes-washing machine the Council had approved when we were eleven.

Merry also walked me through the other moving parts at the hubs and pedals, even though I probably wouldn’t be able to do a field repair if those broke. She showed me how to repair the stuffed leather tires and gave me a kit with a sturdy, new-material needle and twine. I followed along impatiently—if I had to stop and sew the tire back on that would eat up much of my advantage in the race. 

Merry had made some adjustments so that the bicycle would fit me better. My next attempt to push off felt more natural, a taste of the flying equilibrium I’d imagined. Still, it was awkward. I fell a number of times. I became, as Fruit had put it, one giant bruise. I got good and fast at strapping my Runner’s bag back onto the gear shelf. By the end of the day, I was, I had to admit to myself, terrible at riding the bicycle. But I could make it go steadily forward over rough terrain, without falling off too often. And with its power, I knew I could win.

It takes a healthy, well-slept, well-fed Runner six hours to get to Healers Town in good weather. That’s when you’re expecting to either continue on or make the return trip the next day. So you don’t overdo it, you stop to eat and drink, you rest and stretch sometimes, and you slow down on the rocky bits. In a fiery emergency, our best Runners could get there in less than three hours. My own fastest time to Healers Town was probably four hours, but I had never pushed myself to do it faster; it was much more interesting to stop and explore the Wastes on the way, or lie on a warm rock by the river thinking about the energy in the sky and water and how it could be used. Whatever else she is, Fruit is absolutely one of our best Runners. And Fruit could be counted on in any competition to go all-out.

That night, I was definitely not sleeping well. Every possibility for the next day’s race played through my brain. Merry estimated that the bicycle would cut the travel time in half. “Maybe more, eventually, as Runners get used to it and we improve the design. Historically they could be very, very fast, maybe ten times as fast as a Runner, but they also had flat, even surfaces to ride on, and better tires.” This was intriguing and led to a tangential conversation about ancient materials, but it mattered less to me than the logistics at hand. 

Strategy wasn’t what was keeping me awake, though. This bicycle—the first piece of tech that had been designed specifically for the Runners—was the most exciting thing that had happened to me since I’d been pushed out of engineering into the one job in town that had no interaction with technology. Sure, I could soak in a solar-heated bath at the end of a long run in any non-desertous town I ran to, but I couldn’t adjust the controls or peek under the panels. By now, my former teachers must know that I would be testing new tech for the first time tomorrow, and I gleefully imagined their dismay, then felt ashamed. But I hoped I could prove to them my worth, and the worth of this machine, and my ability to be trusted around machines, all at once. Maybe I could use my experience and rapport with it to help invent the next generation of bicycles. I finally fell asleep smiling.

The next day dawned orangely over the grasslands. At breakfast, I couldn’t help but glance over at Fruit across the fire every five seconds. She glared at me and mouthed insults. I gave her my biggest smile. I’ve raced her before plenty of times on foot and know that getting her mad doesn’t help her performance, even if she still wins most of the time. I made a silly face and could practically see steam coming out of her ears.

The start of the race was the Runner’s clearing. We had already agreed with Chime that the race would end at the analogous spot in Healers Town. I only tripped once while wheeling the bicycle over. Fruit sneered and said, “It’s not too late to back out.” 

“It’s not too late for you to back out,” I scoffed back, and she rolled her eyes.

“Okay,” said Collaboration, whose many roles included officiating races. “On your marks, Runners. Er, Runner and bicycler. Get set.” A dramatic pause. “Run!…and pedal!”

Fruit took off like a thrown rock. It took me a few extra heart-pounding seconds to push off the log, get my feet on the pedals, and start cranking. I started too slowly, wobbled badly, and thought I would fall, but an extra push on the left crank and some correction of the steering I hadn’t realized I had the skills for saved me. I hurtled off after her, a rush of glee filling my body.

There are two ways to Healers Town: The short, mountainous one, and the longer, flatter one that just has some rolling hills at the end after the two paths meet up. Merry told me about the ancients’ tech that helped their bicycles go up hills without expending more human energy, but our council engineers aren’t approved to work on them yet. So it was the long, flat route for me. I was pretty sure Fruit would take the mountain route—she’s a bit of a show-off and really is very good on rocky terrain and inclines. But taking different paths, we wouldn’t be able to know how the race was going or keep tabs on each other unless it was still close in the very last stretch. Which was unlikely because this bicycle was going to get me there fast enough that I’d already be soaking in the hot baths before Fruit even got to that bit.

It was looking good for me. On the grasslands path, I was keeping up a pace equal to my fastest sprint. Even accounting for the fact that I’d need to slow down over the rocky places and drag the bicycle across a few streams and one small river, my original estimate of how long it would take to win seemed far too conservative. Maybe I could even get to Healers Town and then back again in the same time that it would take one of our fastest Runners. That was a glorious thought, and the wind on my face and the steady motion of my legs made it all the more splendid.

The first real challenge, as I expected, came when I hit the Wastes. The site of a long-ago city, the path through the Wastes is rocky and bumpy and smells a little foul in that ancient, chemical way. It’s easy to twist an ankle or take a bad fall, and it’s practically a rite of passage for new Runners to have a rescue party sent after you when you don’t return from the Healers Town run. But if you always take the same path, after a few seasons your feet start to get to know all its little juts and crevasses, and you can keep up a good pace and even let your mind wander. 

On the bicycle, that muscle memory wasn’t any good. The way the wheels hit the rocky bits, first one and then the other, was hard to predict and sent jolts through my body. I slowed down to a careful run pace, which reduced the jarring but made the bicycle difficult to maneuver—the slower I went, the more it wanted to tip over to the left or right. I fell a few times, collecting some nice, new bruises. I had to make one agonizing stop to hurriedly stitch up a small gash in the front tire. But finally I figured out how to push off the ground with my foot in order to stay upright and moving forward, and hit upon a speed I could sustain, with minimal jarring, so long as I was extremely responsive and vigilant in steering around rocks, bumps, and obstacles. By the time I was through the Wastes, my entire upper body felt tense and sore, I was soaked in cold sweat, and the skin on the palms of my hands was painful and abraded the same way my feet had been after my first few runs. 

The river is just about the halfway point. Had I been running, I would have expected to reach the river right at the sun’s peak this time of year. By the time I’d soaked my hands, drunk my fill of cool water, stretched, and recovered myself, that peak wasn’t far off. I realized with a frazzled jolt that it might not be as easy as I’d thought to win this race. I needed to get a move on.

Carrying the bicycle across the river wasn’t as easy as carrying nothing but wasn’t nearly as difficult as any number of other things I’d carried, including Doubtless when she’d broken her leg in four places during the first week of training and had to switch to kitchen work. The real trouble started on the other side of the river. It was immediately clear that something was wrong with the bicycle. I couldn’t figure out what it was. There was a sort of wobble-rattle that seemed to be coming from the rear wheel underneath me. I must have stopped two dozen times, dismounted, lifted the end with the seat, and spun the wheel, looking for obstructions or problems with the leather cover or its stuffing. Without my weight on it, it spun freely and silently. Finally I decided to just not worry about it. I was still moving forward, not as smoothly or quickly as I had been over the grasslands, but then again I was now on a gentle slope upward. The grade was far more noticeable on the bicycle than it was running the same route. It was using different muscles and I was fascinated by the sensation of it, the different habits of movement required. I could definitely get used to this, I decided. And once I did, I would be very fast indeed, even going up this hill or a steeper one. 

I only fell one more time, and that was because I was squinting at the sun position above the trees and trying to decide whether my lowered vantage point compared to running upright meant that it was earlier than it looked. I spent the rest of the trip imagining all the places I could go by bicycle. In just a few days of riding I would be able to visit places we only could normally only reach by relay. I would see the lakes of Glorious Rebirth Town with my own eyes, and taste a freshly baked cake of refined flour like they could only make with the water mill in Bakers Town—the bite I had once of a sample brought by relay had tasted like sweet sawdust, but I had a feeling that, fresh, it would be magical. 

The rattle-wobble below me seemed to get slightly worse, then stabilized, then got slightly worse again. But even if the whole thing broke apart there wasn’t much I could do, so I kept pedaling.

The mountain path and the flat path reunite in a wooded area about a half-hour’s run from Healers Town. When I reached the place, I paused, standing astride the bicycle, to get a better sense of the sun. I was pretty sure I was still ahead of where Fruit could possibly be, so I leaned the bicycle against a rock and stretched, ate my last apple, and drank some water. My legs were very sore, my crotch was numb, my palms were on fire, and my back was sending distress signals, but the pain made my impending victory all the sweeter. I let out a giant whoop and grabbed the bicycle, ready to coast the rest of the way to victory and vindication.

That’s when I heard the sound. It took my conscious mind a full minute to catch up to the fact that it wasn’t any of the usual bird, animal, or general rustling noises I was used to hearing on solo runs. I stood stock still, holding the bicycle, listening. When it came again, it was obviously human and it sounded a little like someone saying “Fuck!” In fact, it sounded a lot like Fruit when she was upset or irritated, which is to say, all the time.

I went cold. Fruit was close by, almost caught up with me, and I had to go now or she would win. I swung my leg over the saddle and pushed off. But a few yards down the path, my thoughts caught up with my instincts—the two shouts I’d heard, a minute apart, had been roughly at the same distance, not what I would expect if Fruit were sprinting to the finish. I stopped again and listened. There were no footfalls, no more shouts. What if Fruit was hurt, or being attacked by an animal or some traveler from outside the Covenant? 

My first instinct was to start pedaling again. I could practically taste my victory, and it tasted like a bowl of corn chowder and a steam bath. And isn’t that what Fruit herself would do—pursue victory at all costs? Yes, definitely she would.

I sighed, and turned the bicycle around. 

I stopped every few yards, called “Fruit?” and then listened. I stayed poised to pedal away if anything seemed threatening—if some humans or animal had attacked Fruit, my conscience did not extend to sticking around to get the same treatment. But just before the next bend, I heard a small voice with a surprisingly un-snarky wobble say, “Plenty?” 

I rounded the bend to see her sitting in the path, propped against a tree, clutching her arm and gasping with pain. She looked up at me with an expression that, in anyone else, would have suggested that she was glad to see me. 

“What happened?” I demanded.

She grimaced, looking far more pained than usual. “I heard you ahead, I picked up the pace, and that fucking root got me.” 

I looked back. I knew that root sticking up from the path. It was partly disguised by ferns, and I’d stubbed my own toes on it a time or two. “You hurt your arm?”

“It’s broken.” She spat. “Unlucky landing. I thought I could run with it, but…” she gestured to show how far she’d gotten, not more than a few paces.  

“Do you want help?” I felt tentative, suddenly. I hadn’t seen her this vulnerable since we were little kids. “You could ride the bicycle. Or no, that would not be great with one arm. You could sit on the cargo shelf and I could ride it.” My thrill at this idea must have shown in my face, because she clammed up and glared. 

“Fine,” she said. “You win, Fields of Plenty. Let’s fucking get it over with.”

I reached out a hand, and after a moment she took it. Even the motion of standing made her yelp a little. Getting her seated on the back of the bicycle took a few tries. The first time, I helped her up, then snaked my leg over to try to mount the bike. The whole thing tipped and fell and I’m pretty sure she would have murdered me if she hadn’t been too busy gasping with pain and shouting insults at me. The next time, I stood astride the bike with both feet braced on the ground, holding the steering bar steady, and she clumsily hopped on with the help of her good arm, only cursing a little. 

She kept cursing the whole way into Healers Town. When we went downhill, she demanded that I slow down. On the uphill stretches, every pedal stroke was a struggle to keep the bike upright and moving forward despite my tall and grumpy cargo who picked exactly the wrong moments to adjust her position for comfort. “Just stop moving!” I gasped. “I wouldn’t have to move if you knew how to ride this infernal contraption,” she snapped back, and then squeaked again as we rode over a small rock. 

I’d had no idea how many grievances she had against me since childhood, but the next 20 minutes were enlightening. She felt I’d gotten more attention from the teachers despite my anti-Covenant tendencies, more leniency after shared mischief, and had been awarded a spot as a Runner despite not even training for it or even wanting it, when Fruit herself had worked so hard to get the same position. This was all news to me, and I started to think I ought to apologize, once I’d gotten us to Healers Town in one piece.

We were going downhill at a pretty good clip, despite Fruit’s complaining, since I figured the benefits of getting there sooner would include an end to those complaints, when a great crack echoed through the trees and Fruit, the bike, and I were suddenly tumbling in a painful heap to the forest floor. 

“You idiot!” howled Fruit, and continued in that vein, punctuated by my own chorus of “Ow ow ow!” and some ineffective efforts to untangle ourselves. Finally, I pushed myself back and sat up to assess the situation. Some solid bruises, but nothing broken. The same could not be said for the bicycle, however. It was like looking at it for the first time—my mind could make no sense of its jumbled parts, but this time it was because they were disarranged from their intended order. I stood, picked it up by the frame, and tried to see if it was fixable. The crank rod was disconnected from the center of the rear wheel, dangling uselessly. I leaned it against a tree and tried to push it back into place. It went in, but when I tried to spin the wheel, it was too bent to turn, and the rod’s attachment fell right back out.

I heard a small, snarky noise, and looked up in alarm as Fruit got up and brushed herself off…with both arms. “Thanks for the ride,” she said. “Have fun with your stupid machine. I’ll try to save you some hot water.”

“What the hell, Fruit?” I demanded. “Your arm—”

“You’re such a sucker,” she said. “I heard you up ahead—nice job giving away your position, by the way—and I figured even your precious machine couldn’t save you from being a naive fool.” 

I just stuttered and stared. She stuck out her tongue, waved, and took off at her usual pace. 

“That’s cheating!” I yelled after her, but my heart wasn’t in it. My emotions were a murky cloud of sadness, anger, and confusion. The bicycle lay in disarray at my feet. I picked it up and ran off towards Healers Town, slow with my awkward load, sore muscles, and a distressing new pain in my knee.

We had been less than a ten minute run away. I made it in thirty minutes. Fruit was strutting cockily around the Runners’ clearing while Chimes and various Healers Town people milled around looking concerned. They all turned to look at me as I staggered into the clearing, basically wearing the ruins of the bicycle. Fruit made a childish face at me. Chimes coughed and said, “I see the bicycle isn’t quite ready for widespread use.” 

I thought of plenty of retorts later, like “It’s brilliant so long as only one person is riding at a time,” or “It’s perfectly suited to an honest contest that isn’t rigged by a nasty cheater,” but my knee gave out and all I could do was sit down on a log and start to sob. Various people came to try to comfort me. Someone gently took the bicycle away, and someone else, I think one of the Healers Town Runners, led me to the hospital complex. A young healer, who was obviously deeply uncomfortable with my tears, told me that my knee would be fine after a couple days’ rest and some good long soaks and took me to the baths.

I stayed in the guest house late the next morning, pretending to sleep. I was in no condition to run back to Covenant Town and I didn’t want to see Fruit and Chimes before they went. And, to be honest, I wanted to see if I could fix the bicycle and maybe salvage something out of this mess after all—maybe, at least, I could ride the bicycle home. Or somewhere else, far away from Fruit, Chimes, Collaboration, and even Merry. 

By the time I’d eaten and gotten my thoughts somewhat in order, the Healers Town engineers already had all the parts disassembled and laid out and were comparing them with the blueprint Chimes had brought with her. They welcomed me with a dozen questions, and the day passed quickly. They didn’t have the solar forge and couldn’t produce replacement parts in the new materials. So the bicycle couldn’t be made rideable, but they agreed to send me home the next day with the parts in a tidy, easy to carry bundle and a list of component requests for our engineers so they could make their own.

It was heady and disorienting. The day of the race had gone from being the best to the worst of my life. And the next day, spent working with engineers on a problem we were all totally focused on, and being treated as an equal…it was hard to enjoy it fully after the previous day and with my entire body hurting, but it filled me with quieter, less dramatic sensations of rightness and fulfillment.

“Can I come back? To stay?” I asked Orchard, the Healers Town leader, before I left. The engineers had gotten the full story out of me and she’d been briefed on how the race had gone sideways not through any fault of the technology. 

“We have our full complement of Runners,” she said. 

“I mean, as an engineer. I could build you another bicycle. More bicycles. And I can fix them when they break.” 

Orchard smiled and clapped me on the back. I tried to hide a wince. “Go home, Plenty, and make your peace there. Collaboration may not be ready to let go of her resident bicycle expert.”

“Oh, she won’t mind at all,” I said, but an hour later I was on the trail home, at a walk, looking forward to exactly nothing, not even finding out what kind of trouble Fruit must be in.

Back at home, I broke the rules by making a wide detour around the Runners’ clearing and heading to the engineering compound that had sprung up around the solar forge after the new materials it enabled had made our community the center of Covenant technology and innovation. I found Merry and dumped the disassembled bicycle unceremoniously on her work table. 

Her eyes went big as she untied the bundle and examined the broken parts. “What happened? Did you ride into the side of a boulder?”

“Fruit happened,” I moaned, and told her the story. She looked concerned and sighed. “They really didn’t do you any favors placing you with the Runners, did they?” she said. “Okay, I need to go talk with some people. Can you stay here? We worked too hard on this machine to let it get killed off by politics and pettiness.” She took off her work apron and turned to leave. “By the way,” she said, turning back, “I’m impressed you were able to carry another person on it, even just for a short period. That’s never something we even considered.”

After that there were a couple days of going to bed late, getting up early, and staggering my mealtimes. I figured Fruit would blame me for whatever consequences she faced from her cheating, so I avoided her and the other runners as much as possible. Then my turn for the Fish Town run came, and even though my knee still twinged with every step, I took it. That kept me out for a night in each direction and a night in their guest house. As I ran, I imagined making the trip by bicycle. It no longer seemed like much of an advantage to make the trip faster, and I would have stayed an extra night if it wouldn’t have led to questions.

When I got home, Collaboration found me in the kitchen between mealtimes, wolfing down acorn bread. “I was hoping to find you here,” she said. “I just came from engineering. They have the bicycle working again.”

This got my attention. Collaboration looked at me hard, and then sighed. “You know, I heard the story. Both sides.”

“What do you mean, both sides?” I asked. 

“You told Merry that Fruit pretended to be injured in order to get an advantage in a race. And Fruit says that she passed you on the trail crying over the pieces of your broken machine.”

I just stared with shock. 

“Fruit’s story seemed much more likely, even though you’ve never had the temperament to lie,” she went on with another sigh. “But our engineers have convinced me that the bicycle collapsed due to excess weight on the rear wheel. It wasn’t designed to carry two people.”

“So you believe me?” I could barely hear my own voice. 

“Yes. And I misjudged you, or maybe you’ve grown. You understand why I couldn’t let you work as an engineer before?”

“Because I broke the forge. And my rock-throwing machine hurt Magnificent.” I had always seen those incidents as unrelated and my punishment as unfair, but my brain was lighting up with a troubling new connection. “I was thinking like the ancients. I got obsessed with how tech could make work I don’t like easier. I knew the Council wouldn’t approve of my ideas, so I never told them about them. And I did the same thing when I tried to use the bicycle to carry a person.” I felt a burning pressure in my face and something had gotten into my eye. I had acted thoughtlessly again, and now there would be consequences for this, too. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Collaboration shook her head gently. “It’s true that the Council will need to approve any changes in the bicycle design that will allow carrying another person. But I’m glad you are starting to understand. I had qualms when we sent you off to test a new machine unsupervised. I could tell that you saw this competition as a chance to justify your enthusiasm for tech, and that worried me. But you put all of that aside when you thought another member of our community needed help. Someone who’s never given you much reason to love or even like them. And you used the machine as a tool to help them, rather than to prove your point or show off.”

My brain was having a really hard time keeping up with the words she was saying. I realized my mouth was hanging open and I closed it. 

“That’s the community-oriented spirit that you’re named after—that we all are,” she said. “And if you can bring that spirit to working with technology, I don’t see any reason to keep you from it. You can move into the engineers’ house tonight.” 

“Can I keep working on the bicycles?” I asked. “I have an idea for the steering—” I held up my hands, where the blisters were just now healing.

“I’m sure they’ll assign you whatever work they give to the most junior engineers to start with,” she said. “Will you mind?”

No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t mind at all. 

Elly Blue is a writer, book publisher, and bicyclist living in Portland, Oregon. She is a co-owner and vice president at Microcosm Publishing & Distribution, where she also has a lot of fun editing and publishing Bikes in Space, an annual feminist bicycle science fiction anthology. You can find more of her work and occasional calls for submissions at

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