Cycling for beginners

Two weeks after I’ve left the City for the wilderness of Central Poland my bike’s front suspension seized with a shudder. I was riding over the remains of an old tarmac road, and suddenly I felt it become rather bumpy, so I almost fell off trying to stop.

“I am sorry, Jake,” the bicycle spoke softly inside my head. “The right actuator burned out and I had to lock the left one. I was not designed to carry heavy loads, and if we keep riding on such disastrous surfaces the other actuator will burn out, too.”

“How soon?” I whispered.

“A week or two. And the front wheel hub is approaching its limits, too, we’re already three weeks past the second required maintenance overhaul. When the front wheel burns out, you lose one third the motive force and two thirds of the braking capability. I’m breaking down. You will have to find another means of transport.”

I knew I couldn’t walk with all the stuff I had in my panniers, backpack and the bag strapped to the handlebars, and yet in the wilderness I needed it desperately. All my life’s savings, as well as my parents’ apartment went into the stuff I now carried.

Some of it was so illegal I’d get my second strike and my third strike at the same time, which is why I met the guy who sold the stuff just outside of the administrative borders of the Warsaw enclave, fifty kilometres outside of the city proper.

There was no law enforcement outside the enclaves. That is why criminals like me could escape the all-seeing eyes of the City’s surveillance and compliance enforcement network. And that is also why I needed a weapon, to hunt for food and to protect myself against other people hiding in the wilderness. They wouldn’t be law-abiding citizens either.
The Commonwealth didn’t care what people did outside of the areas of City enclaves, as long as they didn’t violate any environmental laws. If they did, the first time skies cleared the killsats would find them, and invisible ultraviolet death would descend from orbit.
Still, small groups of hunters and gatherers could easily survive in the forests covering most of Europe, as long as they stayed away from the radioactive fields where the Russian Empire’s area denial swarms managed to get through the defences of the late European Union.

Unfortunately, I had a week or two to find a new bike, and that meant I had to turn towards the radioactive ruins of Poznań. More abandoned buildings meant a higher chance for finding something. Or meeting someone.

Two days later, in an abandoned village I’ve finally found a bicycle. It was weird. It was made completely of metal, and thus surprisingly heavy. Instead of modern wheels it had multiple metal wires leading from the hub to the rim. The pedals were connected to multiple spiky discs, with more of the same on the rear wheel, and there was a weird metal rope-like thingy leading from the pedals to the rear wheel. Chain, it was called, I thought, even though the word evoked images of medieval ages and slavery instead of bicycles. There were also some weird mechanical switches and cables running all over the frame, which I tried flicking, with no results whatsoever. And it was completely dumb. No cameras, no mind, no self-diagnostics. It was probably older than my late parents. Well, I would have to read up on maintenance of prehistoric bicycles, I decided, and set out to search the nearest building for some tools.

Which is when I found the body.

Minimum population

To this day, paleovirologists (all five or six of them) disagree whether the Superflu was a natural mutation or an engineered virus. It had a very nasty combination of a long onset and high virulence which meant that before medical services caught sight of it, cases were already popping up all over the globe. And it attacked the pulmonary system quite viciously. It wasn’t really a problem when you had good medical care – in an intensive care ward, healthy adults had ninety five percent survival ratios, only the weak, elderly and children had mortality rates approaching thirty percent. But the cost-optimized health services of pretty much all civilized nations didn’t have enough doctors, nurses and equipment for even one percent of the sick, and without oxygen and intravenous feeding, almost one in two adults died.

Still, looked for a moment it seemed possible that the economy of industrial nations could survive, barely, this incredible shrinking of the global population.

But Ivan Vladimirovitch Putin had a paranoiac streak a mile wide, and decided that the Superflu was an attack on the Russian Empire that got out of hand. And the European Union, full of militaristic vigour only a decade after the spectacular, completely one sided victory of its military robots against the Chinese Volunteer African Militia wouldn’t back down. After all, the proxy war with China proved that things wouldn’t escalate to nukes, and even if they would, the US and EU would have complete space superiority and laser-based defences would protect against nuclear missiles.

The ensuing Third World war proven everyone wrong. Space superiority kept most of US safe from submarine-launched missiles, but ground-based lasers couldn’t defend Europe’s cities from swarms of high-velocity, low-altitude drones with five to ten kiloton warheads, coming through the defences in a rolling wave of tactical nuclear explosions. The losses were appalling. And then India and Pakistan went at each other with their stockpiles of nukes, while China and Russia blasted away at each other from submarines. Most missiles were intercepted, but some weren’t.

Which is how the world found out that there is a minimum population requirement to maintaining an operating technological civilisation of law and order.