Years ago, the Oracle told Liam Donoghue he would find The One. For many years, he’s been searching.
It's the night before the Illinois Championship Cyclocross race at Montrose Harbor, and William Pankonin is just 18 points away from winning the Chicago Cyclocross Cup Category 3 overall. He has to beat Flatlandia's Jason Wagner by three places, in order to make up those 18 points. Surely the prophecy laid out by the Oracle will come true. Liam has no doubts. But he knows William has questions. William needs to meet with the Oracle. Only she can give him the confidence to know he is indeed The One.
In a cozy apartment complex on Chicago's West Side, William enters the Oracle's domain. He hears her in the kitchen as he makes his way into a room full of small children, all focused intently on the objects in front of their laps. He sees a boy bending spoons with his mind. Next to him is another boy standing beside a bike. The bike is not moving forward or backward, but it is balancing, seemingly like magic. Though it stays put, the wheels suddenly start to spin. Slowly at first, then faster and faster until the wheels become a circular blur. The sibilant whirring drowns out the other boys’ and girls’ conversations, louder and louder. Faster the wheels spin. So still the frame remains. Suddenly both brakes jump inward, grabbing the rims. The wheels stop spinning. The noise dies instantly. The boy looks confidently up at William.
"Do not try and spin the wheels fast. That's impossible," the boy says. "Instead, only try to realize the truth."
"What truth?" William asks.
"There is no bike."
"There is no bike?"
"Then you'll see," the boy continues, "that it is not the bike that goes fast, it is only yourself."
The Oracle summons William into the kitchen. She looks at him for a few seconds, silently, then turns and flicks the oven off. She stands up from her stool, and offers him a cookie. She knows I’m going to take it, William thinks, but is that because she knows what I’m going to do before I do it, or is it because she knows I’m a cyclist and I obviously love cookies? William takes, and eats.
"You already know what I’m going to tell you," the Oracle says.
"I’m not The One," William suggests, through a mouthful of cookie.
"Sorry kid. You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something."
"What?" William asks.
"Your next race, maybe. Who knows? That’s the way these things go."
William turns to leave, past the spoon boy and the bike boy, to bring the news to Liam. But when he arrives at Liam’s house, he looks into Liam’s eyes, and thinks about all the times Liam has mentioned the prophecy. All the times Liam mentioned what the Oracle told him. That he would find The One. Liam believes.
William keeps his prophecy to himself.
"Montrose is a system, William," Liam says. "That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Business men, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to defeat. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be beaten. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on cyclocross, that they will fight to protect it. Were you listening to me, William, or were you looking at my red bike?"
William shakes his head sorry, and Liam continues.
"I spoke to the Oracle, William. She told me. You will win the state championship jersey. Wagner will finish fourth. The CCC Overall will be yours. There will be celebration, tears, hugs, Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. All of Zion will rejoice!"
William pretends to agree, all the while thinking of his own prophecy. For he is not The One.
It's the morning of Montrose.
Liam turns to William, blue raspberry Gu in his left hand, red strawberry Clif Gel in his right. "You take the blue Gu, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red gel, you stay at Montrose, and I show you how deep the pain cave goes."
William contemplates, glances at each, and knows he has come too far to give up. He grabs the red gel and squeezes it into his mouth.
Liam takes a warmup lap and immediately realizes that the first lap of the race will be especially crucial, as any changed line or tapped brake while in any of the sand pits, sand dips, sand traps and sand turny-up-and-overy-dos will mean getting off the bike, and losing valuable time and places. He goes back and runs through a couple tricky sand areas. William plods on. Tank Seguin already uploaded several cyclocross training programs into William’s head the day before, with specific focus on the course characteristics. William is prepared.
It's 11:45, and Fowkes is standing beside the Cat 3 bunch. He blows his whistle. Clicks, stomps, grunts, whirs. Chains clunking, heavy breathing. This is good, Liam thinks, slotting into second place. This is so good, I should try this not-sucking-at-the-start every single time I race cyclocross. William is close behind.
Agent McVey, in a black suit with sunglasses on and an earpiece in, on an all-black bicycle (which is also wearing sunglasses) passes Liam in the second sticky turn. Remembering back to the mayhem of these first couple sand dips, Liam takes a line to the right of McVey, giving the dangerous man some room just in case. As Liam enters, McVey hits the dip in the middle, and goes end-over-end, faceplanting in some soft sand. Liam groans, and several racers join in an echoing chorus behind him.
Liam is now in 2nd. Agent Cole is in first. Liam seizes the earliest opportunity to pass, and quickly darts around Agent Cole. Liam now has the luxury of picking the lines he wants, when he wants them. He leads the bike race. Ergo, all is well. Concordantly, parents and friends cheer him on as he reels off lap after lap, putting time into everyone on the power section up Cricket Hill. His gap grows to 10 seconds, and stabilizes. Ergo, the race is Liam’s to lose. He is the one with the choice. Or so he thinks. Behind him, the real game is being played out.
William finds himself in no man’s land, in 4th place. He chases after Agent Cole and, more importantly, Agent Wagner, the man who stands between him and first place in the overall. William destroys himself for several laps, inching ever closer toward the chase group, toward a victory for Zion.
"Why do my legs hurt?" William barks out.
"Because you’ve never used them before," Tank Seguin says.
On the third lap, William catches the two, and sits and waits. Ahead, his teammate Liam acts as the carrot, and the Agents hunt Liam down with William in tow.
Exiting one of the sand chasms, Liam falls on his left side, and the agents are nearly upon him. He picks up the bike quickly. He remounts, and notices his knee did not absorb the whole of the impact as he originally thought: his left shifter is pigeon-toed in. This pulls the brake cable just enough to cause some rubbing for the remainder of the race. He looks back and sees William struggling with the two agents.
"Stop trying to get up to me and get up to me!” Liam yells.
William, still in fourth place, speaks softly to himself. "Hey, fourth place is pretty good for the championship. I mean, I’m not The One. I’m not supposed to win this race. Will Liam win?"
"William, win already!" Liam yells, at no one in particular.
Agents Cole and Wagner continue to batter and bruise William, forcing him to take pulls. Two laps to go. William knows he must attack. One final effort. He puts his head down, throws all his body’s power into the pedals, and looks behind him. This is the penultimate time up the mythical Cricket Hill. Then William sees it. He has separation. He is successfully outrunning the agents. He is going at a normal speed, but behind him, Agents Cole and Wagner move in slow-motion. Tank watches from the sidelines and cannot believe his eyes. That’s impossible, he thinks, still decked out in a ridiculous Roman gladiator outfit. William comes to the start-finish straight, in second place, Liam just barely ahead, within reach, the two agents just barely behind, still chasing. The pieces of the prophecy are falling into place. William approaches the finish line and knows he has just one more lap. The bell goes off.
All color disappears from William’s world. Trees and bikes and spectators and sand are all replaced by green 1s and 0s against a black background, contoured lines of ever-changing code arranged in easily-definable cyclocross shapes. Everything moves slowly. Everything, that is, but William.
"You have the sight now, William," the Oracle’s voice, both everywhere and nowhere, booms in William’s head. "You are looking at the world without time."
"Then why can't I see what happens at the end of the race?" William asks.
"We can never see past the choices we don't understand."
"Are you saying I have to choose whether I win or Liam wins?"
"No," the Oracle says. "You've already made the choice. Now you have to understand it."
"No. I can't do that. I won't."
"Well, you have to."
"Why?" William asks.
"Because you're The One."
William, near-blind by the perfection of his pedal stroke and the wattage he is outputting, gets closer to Liam. Fourth place thoughts are but a distant memory. His mind no longer remembers that it once expected something other than sheer, dominating victory. William is no longer tired. There is no bike. He moves like a ghost over the course, floating over the double-barrier section, and comes up to Liam.
"Jason's in fourth," Liam says to The One. "Just go win and it's all yours."
Through the sand pit. Around the tree. Run through the bunker. Remount. Around the other tree. More sand. Pavement, up-and-over sand, slow turn, muddy downhill, through the tunnel, mucky run-up, over the barrier, through the wood chips, up Cricket Hill, down Cricket Hill, back through the tunnel, down the home stretch.
Victory. Zion is free. I am The One. Will, I am.