They were all passengers now, Sonora thought, watching Driver, halfway convinced (but never quite) that she was sharing his thoughts. His fear was obvious enough, betrayed by his stiff posture, as he lay among the cushions like a wooden martyr marionette dropped down from a cross to which it was still attached by strings. His mind barked out loud warnings; he felt threatened, but it was easing.
She smiled and put her hand on his breast. “It’s strange for you, not driving, isn’t it?”
“We’re not moving yet,” he said with a wry smile, as if he had seen into her intentions.
“Yes we are,” said Sonora.
Sonora could still remember her name, which was more than she could say of the others on the bus. She wasn’t sure about all of them; and they didn’t seem exactly sure of themselves. Chad she remembered; Yvette, yes — and the one who called himself Neuron. Or did she know Neuron? Hadn’t for long, actually. He’d come up to them during the concert, right after Driver had said he needed help.
“Join us on the bus out front,” he’d whispered in her ear. “We’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
He wore a cowboy hat, which, for a guy who called himself Neuron, was an odd thing. But the crown of the hat was transparent, clipped away and replaced with a transparent dome which crisply replicated the crease down the center of a Stetson. And down in that dome you could see lights moving and pulsing inside a plastic model of a human brain. At least she hoped it was plastic.
“It’s not plastic, you know,” he’d said right away, as if she’d asked audibly. “It’s laminated so you can look right in. Just as tough as my old skull.”
“You go around like that?” she said.
“Sometimes I wear a regular hat, like when I’m working in bright lights. But on nights like this I like to keep the top down and . . . ‘just let the lights shine!’”
The last of his words were a line from a song the Group was singing right at that exact same instant.
“So how do I know which bus is yours?” she leaned and asked him.
“Can’t miss it. She’s black and weirdly angled, as you’d say.”
“I’d say? You said it.”
Now he was putting himself down beside her, his cowboy hat tossed off, and wrapping a black bandanna kerchief around his head. The neural lights had dimmed anyway. She vaguely remembered seeing his brain bobbing along way up ahead in the dark tunnel as they were seeping out of the amphitheater, the last chords of music hanging behind them like a bubble about to burst. She had followed him dreaming of nightlights. “I don’t suppose you have any wisdom pills, do you?” he asked.
She pulled a vaporizer out of her pocket. “Will this do?”
When he could speak again, he did so raspingly. “Who’s your friend there? The comfortable one.”
“That’s Driver,” Sonora said. She couldn’t tell if he was asleep or just pretending. The motion of the bus lulled him. She realized it was probably the first time he had ever allowed himself to sleep on a moving bus. My God, she thought. The most basic pleasure of the journey and he’s never experienced it until now, no wonder he seemed so uncomfortable all the time.
Driver opened his eyes and looked at them.
“What kind of bus is this?” he said.
“You’ll be sorry you asked that question,” Neuron said.
Sonora had ominous intimations of an unspeakable horror about to be revealed. No sooner had Neuron spoken his warning than an old man near the front of the bus began to talk, twisting his leathery neck around so the cords twined together.
“This is the only kind of bus there is,” the old man said.
“That there’s Crouch,” said Neuron. “And you just started him on his favorite subject.”
“It’s not my favorite — not by a long shot,” Crouch said, knee-walking toward them. “But it’s one on which I have many opinions.”
“That’s what I meant,” Neuron said.
“They’re not the same thing, what you said and what you meant.”
“Crouch, you make my brain tired.”
“And it makes my soul weary looking at you, Cerebrus.”
“What was that again?” Sonora asked, looking on amazed at this stream of bickering, which suggested old well-worn rots in the relationship between these men, so that she doubted they could ever talk to one another in any other way — had they even wanted to.
“Cerebrus. The Spectacular Transparent Head. The Mind-Body split made manifest.”
“I have many opinions about buses, too,” Driver said. “I’ve thought about them a lot, while I was driving. But this isn’t like riding on any bus I can imagine. This is like moving on waves, just soft little swells over the sea . . . or a big lake.”
“Or a river,” said the old man. “A river’s more like it.”
Then “Look!” said Yvette at one of the windows, peering out through a tiny spyslot she’d lifted beneath the shades. “It’s our bus!”
Sonora turned around and made herself one of the eyeholes. They were coming down from the mountains, narrow curving roads winding around and switching back, wriggling down the slopes. They were out of the cool dark trees, the pines and rivers and rocks. This was the arid desolate place above the foothills, the place where nothing grew but weeds and aluminum guardrails. She had always hated this part of the road — of any mountain road. This was where the dust beat itself senseless, blowing in from the plains; or where the salt fell, whisked in off the sea. Nothing moved here but headlights.
On the switchback below — moving past, under them, and then in the opposite direction — she finally saw their bus. Unmistakable. And there were people in it.
“Hey,” she said. “Driver, I thought you said the bus was broken.”
His face darkened in a scowl. “I know that bus,” he said. “And it died tonight.”
“Maybe it hasn’t, yet.”
Sonora looked over at Neuron, but only briefly. His smile, like his words, puzzled her. She went back to watching the bus below. Headlights vanished around a curve, came out again, continued to weave. The air was full of dust or smoke, so she could see the beams swinging back and forth.
Driver pushed up next to her. “What are you looking at?”
“Just what Yvette said. It looks like
“It can’t be our bus.”
“That’s what it looks like, I’m sorry.”
“It can’t be our bus.”
He looked anyway.
Someone up front switched on a radio and music came out of the scattered speakers. It was the Group, predictably, broadcast from the microsatellite they owned, which all the pilgrim buses picked up with a special antenna. Sonora hardly heard it, it had been background music for so long. But she noticed when the broadcast cut off suddenly.
Suddenly was hardly the word for it.
The tune died with a scream, then a hysterical wailing and clamoring. Voices in panic and terror. “No!” someone shouted. “No, my God!”
“No — no!”
Screams. Then a clearer voice, only slightly stronger than the others, high and nasal, a man: “This is a report — hello, are you there? Anyone? I’m reporting live from the airfield where the Group was just now departing. It’s hard to be sure, but we just saw — everyone waiting out here is afraid of it —”
For a moment the sane voice was drowned out by shrieking that completely overwhelmed everything else. He moved away or somehow regained control — at least of himself, at least for the moment. “Oh my god, yes, it’s apparently true. We saw a fireball — well, heard a horrible sound, first, hard to describe — impossible to describe, I’d have to say — sort of a metal scraping and then a crumpling crash — and then that fireball, an explosion that is now pouring up into the sky.
“Brothers and sisters, I do not want to be the one to tell you this, but I saw them with my own eyes and I have the microphone now, so my voice is going to have to be the one to say it. I saw them board that plane a few minutes before it took off. I would like to tell you that they were not on it, but I saw all of them go in, and then the door closed and the ladder pulled away and the plane started to taxi off down the runway into the darkness, so I could only see its running lights moving across the field. It was very dark out there, everyone. I don’t know if another plane came in out of nowhere or if the Group’s plane just didn’t get off the ground in time . . . or if something else went wrong. But I can see a giant wing or a tail sticking up out of the flames; that’s all I can see through the smoke. That’s all I can tell you now, my friends . . . my poor friends. My God . . . I’m so sorry for all of us.”
Silence in the black bus, indecipherable. Sonora knew that she and Yvette and Chad and Driver were all looking out their windows at their own bus on the road below, but somehow none of this seemed real. What they were hearing, what they were seeing — none of it.
Their crazy, colorful bus’s headlights drove in and around, wove sharply once, twice, and again. In an instant — it happened that fast — Sonora saw the bus speed up and go out of control. The turn ahead was sharp and lit too late, and whoever drove was not thinking of the road.
“You idiot!” Driver said, yelling down at the bus as if he could save it with a word.
But he couldn’t. None of them could have done anything to stop it going over the edge. The disaster had begun when the Group got onto the plane; now it was only spreading, a shockwave, carrying all of them with it.
“Shut those shades now,” Crouch said firmly.
“But — but —”
“I said shut those shades!” the old man insisted.
“Come on.” Neuron was up next to her now, gently taking the shade out of her fingers, sealing it down again. “Crouch knows.”
“What’s happening here?” Driver yelled at them.
It had to be asked, eventually. Sonora was not so sure it would ever be answered.
The speakers shut off and the lights dimmed drastically. Only a few little bulbs remained to show a way through the heaped pillows. For the first time Sonora noticed figures sleeping, wrapped in sheets, on the overhead bunks which lined the interior. There was not much room up there, under the curved ceiling; they were crammed in like luggage, and among luggage. The bus whirred on, and it was as Driver had said: it felt as though they were rocking, but not so gently now. Crazily. With growing violence. She lay down flat on her back, afraid she might be thrown or at least rolled; with arms spread wide, she grabbed onto the mattress, convinced that they too were now going off the road.
A wave of sound roared through the bus, beginning in the pings and creaks and groans and rattles of the engine, the shocks, the brakes and the tires — growing louder and louder, until it sounded like jabbering voices. It built into a storm of howls and crashing as if they’d been caught in an avalanche of souls on the steep road. The sides of the bus felt too thin to protect them. Hail or hammerblows struck the ceilings, the walls, even pummeled them from underneath. She felt a repetitive, dull slamming just under one of her shoulders, a steady beat that seemed to be aiming up deliberately at her, driving toward her heart.
Her mind had room for nothing else. The lights flickered and went out, and she would have screamed except that Neuron was right up next to her, whispering comfort in her ear, and she could see his brain glowing faintly, comfortingly, through his bandanna. She grabbed onto him, wondering for a moment how Driver was taking this — sorry that he had always been so aloof from them. She supposed he would be all right.
Then, some long time before she accepted the fact, the sounds died out and the hammering stopped and even the sickening motion was done. They seemed to be at rest, the motor purring — idling — underneath them; and all around them, otherwise, perfect silence.