Driver stared down into the headlights, which scarcely showed anything except flat sand unrolling ahead of him, just enough to drive straight into. He drove by instinct, or by trust, suspecting that there were no obstacles in their path — would be none for quite some distance. Thinking, grimly, that even if he ran into a wall — so what?
It was something he reflected, to be up here again, in the driver’s seat, doing the only thing he had ever done for as long as he could recall. He felt relief at being essentially alone. Too many passengers back there — from the old bus and from this new one — brought on that unfocused, troubling pressure he always felt in crowds, as if he were in danger of coming apart or losing himself in their midst. They would know him as Driver now, and he wouldn’t have to know much about them. They would be grateful to leave the driving to him.
It was a challenge. He had never seen a road like this; or imagined one existed. Well . . . maybe he had. On certain nights after days of driving, after weeks of journeying on the endless pilgrimage, following the Group, he would sometimes lie in bed in some motel, or in a sleeping bag on the ground outside the bus, and imagine that he was still driving — but in perfect darkness, with his eyes closed. He would dream the act of driving distilled to its essence — no real mad beneath the tires, only the voyage itself, always leading into sleep.
Sleep, he supposed, if you could stay conscious through it, might be like this. Lucid dreaming, that’s what this was. Or dreaming wakefulness. A drugged kind of —
Squirming memories surfaced; the palm of his hand tingled. Something about a drug, a droplet, a burrowing thing.
He was on the verge of remembering when a white shape flew into the headlights and slammed against the windshield. He hit the brakes, screaming into the face of the thing that had crumpled against the glass — crushed snout, red slit eyes, torn wings as wide as the windshield. When the bus finally ground to a stop, the flattened thing slid backward and fell into the dust.
Sonora and Neuron stood next to him, peering down. In the headlights it was fairly well-lit, and apparently dead. Its wings unfolded the rest of the way, its claws twitched galvanically then stilled. From one of the withered wing-fingers, a bit of colored ribbon dangled, talon-pierced. It was a rainbow paisley pattern, part of a scarf or a pennant. Driver had seen the colors before, flapping over the stage at a concert.
“Damn,” Neuron said. “I guess we are headed the right way.”
“You’re not going out there again,” Sonora said.
“No. You can keep on going, Driver-man.”
Driver sank back into his seat. The engine had stalled, but it started up easily enough. He pulled forward slowly, watching the ruined thing pass under the front bumper. He was careful to drive as straight as possible, but even so, he thought he heard the wide wings crackle as the tires passed over them.
Neuron clapped him hard on the shoulder. “It’s a good sign,” he said, nodding. “A real good sign.”
Not long after that, the stars reappeared. Dead ahead, clustered low on the horizon, spreading slowly apart as the bus sped forward.
He was squinting for a better look when he saw something moving. He wasn’t ready for a repeat of the last collision. He started to brake, hoping to avoid a mess; but then he saw the pale thing waving. A person.
“What’s going on?”
Without answering, he brought the bus to a stop. The person outside — a skinny, ratty-looking kid — came running toward them down the bright twin tunnel of headlights, waving his arms desperately. When he reached the bus he started banging on the door.
Driver looked back at Neuron, as if for permission. “Go ahead,” the cowboy said, and Driver opened the doors.
The kid hurled himself up the stairs, breathless and laughing. “I can’t believe it!” he was saying. “You — you found me out here. I mean, there’s others here? Wow! I thought I could hear them up ahead, you know, I been following just the little sounds in the dark, just those few notes you can barely hear. But I should have known I wasn’t the only one. I couldn’t be the only one. I mean, of the followers who’d do this, who’d come here.”
His eyes were everywhere all at once, pupils enormous, as if he’d been staring into darkness forever. Finally his gaze settled on Driver, and his wide smile froze inside his pale ragged beard.
“I remember you,” he said. “I met you! And you’re really here now. Man!”
Driver started to look away, leaving him to the others. The kid was crazy or high. Then, abruptly, he remembered their meeting in the amphitheater earlier; the kid had come rushing up to him just like this, exactly as crazed, and then staggered off.
“Man, this is great,” he was saying. “We’ll catch up with them now, yeah. You got a bus and everything. How’d you manage that? I mean, on foot it’s tough. I didn’t have much to go by. But — but maybe it’s what you have when you go, right? I mean, were you all in a bus? All of you?”
He looked around the interior of the black bus, but no one answered. The other passengers seemed almost embarrassed by his manic energy.
“I mean, all I had was my own two feet, right? Only way I could think to follow was to, you know . . . walk. I found an edge, like, a real high place, top of a building. A real tall building. It was so tall the lights on the ground looked like tiny faraway stars, you know? Like stars, yeah. And I just went walking toward them, right out into the sky, stars above and below, stars everywhere . . . and I walked through that for a while, till the stars went away and it got dark. But I could hear the Group again, finally. Like they were up ahead just a little ways— they didn’t have much of a head start on me. That was such a relief, right? I mean — I was trying to imagine the world without them. What’s left? Hey . . . you got a radio, why aren’t you tuned in? You gotta tune ‘em in. How else you gonna follow?”
The kid went to the dashboard and punched on the radio. It hadn’t been on since they’d seen their old colorful bus plunge into darkness. It crackled to life now, as if the satellite were still out there orbiting in the dark, bouncing signals to anyone who cared to receive them. . . .
Driver straightened when he recognized it. The Group was coming in clear, as if they were outside the bus, surrounding it.
“Yeah,” the kid said, ecstatic. He sank down on the steps.
Some of the others began to whisper, in the back of the bus. Yvette and Chad sounded excited. They knew all the tapes, all the recordings going around, being traded; they knew not only all the songs, but all the individual concerts, had heard most of them in person. But this was something new. This was. . .
“It’s happening right now,” Chad was saying. “Can’t you feel it?”
And Yvette: “It’s live!”
“Yeah!” the kid on the steps agreed. “That’s them! We’re catching up! What’re we doing sitting here, Driver? Let’s get moving!”
Driver had already been in the act of pushing the great bus forward. He bent once again to the task of driving, while music filled the black bus and the stars spread out on the horizon, drifting higher now. Not stars at all, he saw, but fires. Scattered fires burning all over the slopes of some dark shape. He sensed that something held them up, but could gain no impression of it. Spires, or simply a wall? The sky was too black to allow a silhouette, and the fires lit nothing but themselves.
The excitement in the bus grew as they approached the lights. The music was getting louder, the signal stronger. It was strange to know that the Group was up ahead playing — but to what audience?
And then, from the passengers, came a cry of disappointment and frustration — even of despair. For the tunes had blurred into a final lullabye . . . the Group’s signature piece, after which they always left in utter silence.
“Hurry!” they were yelling at him, as if he could squeeze any more speed from the bus — as if they didn’t mind crashing headlong into whatever black enormity held the specks of flame aloft. He couldn’t bring himself to drive blindly, though. The closer he got to the lights, the slower he went — he had no sense of depth here. How far had he come? How far had he to go?
The tune crested, tumbled over an inevitable edge into silence.
“Noooooo,” they wailed inside the black bus.
At that moment, the bus passed through a gate, an entrance or exit of some sort, into a tunnel. It was luminous with a deep violet light. They were descending, so he took his foot off the accelerator for an instant — and just then, they burst out abruptly into a huge arena, a stadium or coliseum whose dimensions were almost inconceivable.
They had emerged somewhere in the middle of the field. Ramparts or bleachers rose on all sides; they were like distant mountains, their true size impossible to judge. He had no sense of scale.
The ground was littered with rubbish: chunks and splinters of whitish rock that looked like the shards a mason leaves behind when he chisels a tombstone. Gnawed, discarded bones; soiled take-out containers. Worms and flies crawled and buzzed through the heaps of filth. Glass crunched and burst under the tires. Wide piles of embers smoked and glowed here and there like the remains of bonfires. He drove carefully through the waste, not wanting to be stranded here. Static poured from the speakers; all directions looked equally undesirable, all destinations futile. To head for any one of the surrounding walls would have been equally vain; they were all impassable.
“We missed ‘em,” the kid on the steps said, dejected. “We just missed them.” He put his head on his knees and began to sob. “All that . . . and . . . and . . . ”
Sonora moved over to him. Her eyes were on the desolate scene beyond the window, but she put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Hey, don’t worry. We’ll catch them next time, okay? They’re still out there.”
Sonora fiddled with the radio dial, but all bands seemed equally dead now.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said.
“Not here, though,” said Neuron.
“What do you mean?” Sonora turned to look at him. Driver kept the bus moving slowly, weaving around heaps of smoldering coals, because that was what he knew how to do.
“We have to keep moving. We have to get out now. If we get stranded, stuck here, they’ll pull so far ahead we’ll never catch up.”
“How . . . how do you know all this?” she asked.
“We’ve been following them a lot longer than you,” he said. “You learn these things.”
“But — but all this, it only happened tonight — I mean, if this is still tonight.”
Neuron shook his head. “You don’t see. It didn’t happen tonight, whatever that means. And it hasn’t happened yet, neither. It happened a long time ago — and it’s still happening, even now. It keeps deepening; it keeps moving through all the levels, and that’s where some of us come from . . . from the world before, or another one before that. Just like you, now, hooking up with us. It’ll change you eventually, like it changed me.” He put a finger to his skull. “You’ll become what you are, along the way; but what you are will change.”
Sonora stared at him, irritated. “Just tell us what to do,” she said.
“If I knew that . . . ” Neuron started.
“Let me,” came a rasping voice from above them. In the rear-view mirror, Driver could see someone stepping down from the bunks. It was Crouch, the old man. He hadn’t been there long, but apparently it was long enough. He almost wasn’t Crouch anymore.
He knelt before them, extended his pale, long-fingered hand, and slowly opened his fingers. Driver gasped. From the popping blue veins in the old man’s palm, red slugs were crawling. They wriggled up, dried, curled to a wisp at one end, a rounded blob at the other. “Corpsules,” Crouch said. “I can make my own now.”
It was the first thing Driver had seen here that truly frightened him.
Then he remembered when he had seen them before.
When and where. . . .
The amphitheater. Like this place, only smaller, enclosed, packed with people. Could this be the same place, much later that same night, with all the people gone from it? Had they been driving in a circle all night, and now everyone was home and sleeping except them? But it was so immense . . . had they shrunk somehow?
“Disgusting,” Chad said, his face pressed to a window. “Look at all them fukkin diapers, my god. And the cans, the garbage bags.” Which there were, bursting at the seams, stuffed with rancid meaty stuff, ground worms maybe, that wouldn’t quite ever decay, it was so rubbery and plastic.
“Yea, verily,” said Crouch now, raising two fingers in a peace sign, then making a sign of power over the handful of red drops. “Behold me, that am yet angel.”
And then his wings unfolded.