My splashbike squelches as it leaves the concrete. I’m airborne, wet hair flailing, stinging my cheeks. I love this part, the almost not-quite making it to the other side. But despite the constant shifting rain I hit a cantilever. My splashbike bobbles, the specially designed tread of the tires defying gravity until I’ve got enough momentum to fall up, onto the ledge. My tendons scream as the Muck pulls from below, but I pull everything up after me.
The workers on the ledge cheer as I unload the day’s haul, brought across the Muck from somewhere else, another Up-Above maybe. I don’t know what’s in my sack, but it smells sharp and sweet. From the office the warden appears. She hands me a golden key. I’ve earned release to our Up-Above, where everything grown and dug and died for in the Muck goes.
Hedge is incredulous. It should have been him; he’d carried more goods across the Muck, hauled up more from the down-down-below, achieved the highest status a mucker could. He’d earned his own splashbike, his own hammock. My stats put me in second place for amount hauled, but since my only crime was being born to criminals, I’d earned my pardon. Hedge had done wrong in his Up-Above, long before we fell in love. I tell him I won’t go. I’ll give him my key instead. Something shifts in his eyes and his shoulders sag. “I want freedom, but you deserve it.”
“Kiss me,” I shout, above rain plucking metal. I’d only ever known rain, but Hedge’s kiss is what I imagine clear sky tastes like.
The next morning I climb onto a box marked ‘fragile’ and ride the elevator out of the rain.
Light bounces off everything. I squint to see beauty. “What is this?” I ask a peddler with a cart of round, red things.
“Apples,” she says, as if I am dumb. I am. I’d only known them as lumps in a sealed sack. Unlike the nutrient bars, I don’t need water to choke down the bites of apple. It has its own water inside, and it is sweet.
I’m given a bike but it’s nothing like a splashbike. It doesn’t even have solid-fuel impellers for climbing and muck-jumping. I’ll have to pull wagons and chariots to pay for it. The pavement clutches my bike’s narrow tread, smothering, gripping, too safe. To compensate for the lack of fear, I ride fast and hop curbs, bounce up stairs, somersault. A cart of nectar overturns and that is the best day yet, I slide through it over and again until my bike careens me into a ditch.
A magnate hires me. He says I’m a marvel. “Faster!” he shouts, laughing when the other passengers squeal in fright. I slow down instead, remembering myself before Hedge taught me to funnel fear into energy.
My bed is dry and my bunkmates snore instead of cry. Honey, rather than mildew, invades my nose. I wear clothes with color. I jump a broken bridge, to cheers from those who’d never risked falling. My recklessness makes me popular.
One day the magnate hires me for a drive. I hear his companion whimper and what I see make me slam to a stop. The magnate whispers in my ear. I don’t like his command and start pedaling faster. Something dark has sprung to life and I’m flying over the ground to escape. I tell the authorities later that he’d dared me to jump that broken bridge with a chariot in tow.
I didn’t mean to kill the passenger. I didn’t mean to kill anyone, although I’m not sorry when I see the magnate’s skull, red as an apple. The rulers of the Up-Above believe me, but someone has to be punished for the loss. When my bones heal, they send me back down, into the rain. The punishment for the magnate is a fair trade, for his passenger, justice.
All criminals start at the literal bottom of the muck, trawling the sewage for salvageable dropped goods. Even covered in filth, Hedge recognizes me. He leaves his splashbike on a ledge and climbs down, wades through the black liquid. “What are you doing back?”
I’m too ashamed, not of returning, but of the way he looks at me. I run away.
I scrub my skin raw in the lye showers before climbing the back scaffolding to the perch where the splashbike riders congregate for food and drink. I didn’t answer before, so Hedge asks me again. “You were free. Why’d you come back here?”
“Clear air and apples aren’t enough,” I say. I take a deep breath, breathing Hedge’s air along with the greasy mist.
“You’re a mucker’s mucker now. You’re starting over.”
“I’ll earn a splashbike again.”
Hedge huffs, shakes his head. Not because he doubts my skill, though. This I know. “Imagining you up there, free, was almost as good as being free myself. You blew it. You’ll never get another chance to leave.”
Without taking my eyes off Hedge I step backwards, dropping off the ledge.
Scrambling, screaming. Hedge’s face rises into the space I’ve fallen, his eyes wide. I’m balancing on a tiny cantilever, one foot leveraging air.
“Why did you do that?” Hedge shouts. His tone is angry, but I know it’s only because he’s reminded of losing me again. We grip each other’s biceps and he pulls me up. The rain renews its surge and I can’t shout over it. I kiss him instead and hope in time he’ll understand. Joy is a frantic, panicked heart.