It wasn’t a good idea, there in the bus. He battered them against the racks and jumped back, hunching smaller. “Jesus!”
“Looks like this isn’t your day, old man,” Neuron said, putting arms around him, helping him pack the wings back in again. In almost the same gesture, he swiped the handful of drops from the white-furred palm. Apparently it was expected. Crouch sucked in his cheeks and, still stooping, hobbled painfully toward the front of the bus.
“Open the doors,” he said commandingly as he passed Driver.
Crouch hit the lever himself. The smell that swept in was unbearable. He faced into it, descended with his nose held high, turned and faced the bus and all its company. Seeing him out there, surviving in the emberlight, some of the passengers let up the windowshades on that side. Crouch clicked his heels together, put his hand to his brow in a crisp salute, and bowed stiffly at the waist. Then he sprang into the air and was gone.
“Now we take these,” Neuron said. Waving a corpsule under Driver’s nose.
Sonora also remembered the droplets. She rushed over to Neuron and grabbed it out of his hand.
“This!” she cried. “This is why we’re here!”
“Well, in a sense,” Neuron said with a shy smile. “Or hadn’t you figured that out yet?”
“I don’t mean what you think I mean,” she said. But she wasn’t sure how to put it. Wherever they were — death, a dream, some other kind of place whose name came not quite so readily to the tongue — they wouldn’t have been here except for the drag. They would have been somewhere else completely; perhaps they might have passed through here briefly, on their way to that other place. But instead they had gotten off the road — driven off it almost deliberately — and were now trapped in this . . . she wanted to call it a borderland, but she wasn’t sure it was either a bordering region or a zone between borders. It was more like another planet, that extensive.
“He’s wigging out,” said one of the original passengers, whose name she had never known. She thought he was talking about Neuron, but he saw she thought that and shook his head, nodding toward the ceiling.
Wild laughter from overhead.
They went out, all of them, to see Crouch turning somersaults in the sky above. He was just luminous enough to be visible.
“Come on, old man!” Neuron yelled, clenching his fists. He had dropped the red tears into a vial he wore around his neck.
“I’m not following him,” someone else said.
Crouch hooted at them.
“Where are they?” the bearded kid cried. He sounded mad.
“Right here,” Crouch called down to them. “But not right now.”
“We know that much,” Neuron said. “Should we drop now?”
“Not yet. They’re farther ahead. Just follow me.”
“Good job, old man.” Neuron looked ecstatic, and when the kid saw him, he relaxed, too. “You heard him, Driver! Everyone back on board!”
Sonora went up just before Neuron, who came last. She realized she had smelled nothing outside — not since the moment she stepped out of the bus. As if the decay were only an image of decay, a projection affecting only the eyes. But as she boarded the bus again, she gagged on the stench that followed her in. Driver had his face covered with a monogrammed handkerchief he pulled from the label of his charcoal black uniform. It was a relief when the door shut behind Neuron.
She let him past, smiling broadly when he looked at her, then turned and whispered urgently to Driver: “Don’t take those drops!”
Neuron was looking back at her. She straightened up and walked toward him, feigning easiness. She swayed as the bus moved forward, and Neuron put his arms out to catch her. They went right around her, tighter this time than before. “Whoa, there. Gotcha,” he said.
“You sure did.” Sonora smiled, hands on his forearms, twisting away. She went down to the mattress, scooting back in between Chad and Yvette. Neuron took a lazy swipe at her, let his arm dangle, and smiled sideways sort of regretfully, as if: oh well.
Sonora looked up and saw Driver watching her in the mirror. Concern showed in his face, but she nodded slightly and he looked back at the road, such as it was. Crouch flew on ahead of them, she supposed.
“What is it, Sonora?” Yvette asked, and Chad, hearing the question, looked over.
Chad had bowl-cut hair and a baggy sweater, a long face with the cheeks scooped out of it. One eye wandered. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“The drug,” she muttered, low, her hands on either one’s knee, so they leaned closer to her. “Those drops. Do you remember taking them?”
“Sure,” Chad said. “Just after the Group came on.”
“It was just before,” Yvette said, with equal certainty.
“But you both took them, right?”
“Yeah. But so what?”
“Something happened to us — and I don’t mean the drugs.”
“I’m not stupid,” Chad said. “I know where we are, Sonora. You’re not the only one who can pick up on these things, and it isn’t exactly all that subtle.”
“I don’t think we’re exactly where you think we are,” Sonora said.
“All right, so is somebody going to say it?”
“We’re dead, you mean?” Chad blurted out, laughing a moment after he had said it.
“If we aren’t, I’d like to know where we are,” said Yvette.
“I think we’re sort of dead, yes —”
“Sort of?” Chad howled louder.
“— but there’s more than that going on. When we died, we were on that stuff, that drug. When you die, you’re supposed to, like, let go of things, come all apart, dissolve back into the universe — at least for a while. But we’re not getting there. We’re stuck somehow, stuck following the Group, just like we did in life. Death is supposed to be experienced with clear, concise consciousness — but we were, are, addled. So we’re seeing all this instead of the Clear Light.”
“Are you saying that even in death, there’s drugs? ” Chad asked. “Whoaw!”
“So we . . . we just let it wear off?” Yvette said.
“I hope that works. That’s why I’m saying, don’t take any more of the stuff. What would it be like, here, to do more of it? What is it? What does it do to you when you’re. . . ”
“Dead,” said Chad, still laughing.
“There’s a peyote paradise,” Yvette said. “Maybe this is like that.”
“This is no fukkin paradise,” Chad said.
“I mean — a drug land. But we’re stuck here in our bodies, or our astral bodies, because we’re dead . . . so we’re free from anything that would pull us back to the Earth plane, like happens when you come down from peyote.”
“Right, baby, I follow that,” Chad said. “But what about this, Sonora? What if we don’t want to come down off this stuff? I mean, what’s up ahead if we do? What are we waking up to, comprende? I mean, the rest of the trip might not be even this pleasant.”
“But Chad, this is unnatural! We’re not supposed to be here this long.”
“Then what the hell are they doing here?”
Sonora looked around the bus at the other passengers, most of them unknown to her, yet with stories and lives as full as her own, hard as it was to imagine.
“No, not them,” Chad said. “The Group!”
“Maybe they were doing the same stuff as us,” Sonora answered. “Or maybe they’re not here at all. The crash could have been like a lure, to get us here. To make our bus go out of control.”
“Jesus,” Chad said. “That’s creepy.”
“Or maybe they died but they weren’t drugged, so that’s why they’re getting ahead of us, going forward while we’re stuck here. So they were on that plane but they weren’t drugged at the time —”
“Yeah, right,” Chad said. “The Group not drugged. Now you’re really stretching things. . . . ”
As if to punctuate his sarcasm, there was a blare of music up ahead, a wild chord sweeping through the bus. It electrified them; everyone crowded to the windows except Yvette and Chad, whom Sonora held back.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “What do you think about Neuron?”
“We should ask you that,” Yvette said.
“I don’t know,” Chad said. “Why? What do you think?”
“I think — he’s here for a different reason than we are. He’s chosen to stay here. I remember him giving us the drugs, in the theater tonight; but we weren’t dead yet.”
“How do you know we don’t have the order of things confused in our memories?” Yvette said. “What if our minds and personalities are breaking up even now?”
“I believe they are, yes, but somehow we got that original drug. Those red drops. What if somehow, someway, Neuron was able to come out to us — out of death, I mean, into the living world.”
“What if he’s meant to,” Yvette said.
“I see what you’re saying Sonora,” said Chad, dismissing the other. “The guy came out and snatched us, sort of.”
“In a way we can’t understand.”
“Oh, I understand it. He saw you, fell in lust, and went for you the best way he knew how. Only to get you, he had to take all of us, since we’re sort of, you know . . . attached.”
Sonora swallowed. “So I’m to blame?”
“He’s to blame!” Yvette said.
“Then . . . what if we’re not really dead? I mean, what if this really isn’t death, but some other kind of world, like you say? What if the Group, playing up there, really is playing?”
“He’s coming,” whispered Yvette.
Neuron ducked out of the crowd at the front of the bus. “They’re playing. You want to come see?”
He put a hand out to Sonora.
“I can hear, thanks.”
“Yeah,” Chad said loudly. “We’re kind of comfortable now.”
Neuron glowered at Chad. He turned away, but took another look at Sonora over his shoulder.
Then the bus stopped, she wasn’t sure why. The music had been brewing, early notes of a concert, the warm-up stage, arrival. She looked out a window, raising the shade above her head, and saw light. It was artificial, drifting down from incredibly tall spindly lampposts that arched overhead and dropped blots of light across a concrete wasteland.
They were in a parking lot. All the garbage they’d passed through was peripheral to this. They had come to another stadium inside the larger one, a relatively tiny arena in the middle of the plain which was itself surrounded by ring-walls.
The black bus was the only vehicle in the lot. Except . . . yes, far off, around a curve of the stadium, she could see a black airplane, sleek and inky, angled something like the bus with a shimmering exterior, half-diamonds and other geometric planes that made the craft look at once velvety and scaly.
Driver had parked within walking distance of the gates. She could see clots of people moving through the dark arches, down the tunnels that led toward the central stage. Not many, though. She had the impression these were stragglers, hurrying in late.
“It’s started already,” Neuron said quickly to all of them, like a teacher explaining to a class. He uncapped his vial. “Okay, Crouch will back me up on this, it’s time to drop. Who’s first?”
Most of the other passengers moved forward. Sonora wanted to stop them, but she didn’t dare. It would have to be enough, for now, to save her friends — and herself. They opened their hands and she said nothing. Neuron laid the red corpsules in their palms as they walked past him, down the steps and onto the cement, heading toward the music. Some licked their hands, slurped up the droplets; but she remembered from a sudden tickling in her palm how easily the things were administered.
She whispered, “Drop yours — I mean, get rid of them — as soon as you can. Don’t leave them on your skin.”
“Why not just refuse?” Yvette said. “I mean, he can’t make us take them.”
“I can’t believe you two,” Chad said. “Dead, and afraid to take drugs. What could happen to you now?”
“What if we’re not dead?” Yvette said.
“Yvette, you are one confused girl. Do what you want. I’m going for it.”
He pushed up from the platform and swaggered past Neuron, who dropped the corpsule in his hand and winked at him. Chad slapped Neuron’s shoulder and popped the drop in his mouth, giving a thumbs-up to Sonora and Yvette on his way out.
“Ladies,” Neuron said. “You coming?”
“I don’t know,” Yvette said.
“The show must go on, right? You’ve got to get off and experience —”
“She doesn’t feel up to it,” Sonora said.
“Really?” Neuron pressed toward them. “Don’t feel well? Now how can that be?”
“I’ve got sort of a psychic headache,” Yvette said.
“They don’t have to go if they don’t want to,” Driver said quietly.
Neuron stopped where he was and turned back toward him. “What’s that ?”
“I said, there’s no reason for them to get off the bus if they’d rather not.”
“But, hey, out here in the parking lot . . . it gets a little scary during a show.”
“I’ll be more than happy to stay with them. I’ve done it many times.”
“Done it many times, huh? Look, Driver-man, you’re just a suit, all right? A uniform, you get me? Nobody’s talking to you. You don’t play a part in this.”
“Do you want to drive?” Driver said.
Neuron paled, while up inside his hat, his brain blackened, emitting a dark bruised light, purple as an injury. “Look here,” he said.
Driver rose as Neuron stalked toward him.
“Hey,” said a voice from outside. “What’s going on in there?”
It was Crouch.
“Good, you’re here,” Neuron said. “The driver is giving us trouble this time.”
“Get in and help me.”
“I — jeez — can’t. These fukkin wings!”
Crouch tried the doorway but got stuck in it. Driver pulled on the door lever and the partitions began to shudder and flap, first crushing Crouch’s fingers and pinching his wings so he yelled, then expelling him backward onto the parking lot. Soundlessly, but not before Sonora let out a warning cry, Neuron leapt at Driver. Driver caught him, twisted, and simply shoved. Neuron tumbled down the steps, landing directly atop the howling Crouch.
Driver then, before they could regain their feet, shut the door.
The two staggered upright, clinging to each other for support, livid and furious now. They came toward the door, not seeing it, searching the air with desperate hands. Before they made contact, Driver had already thrown the gears into reverse. They stumbled past the windshield, dismayed to find the bus already gone.
Standing next to Driver, Sonora and Yvette looked down at Neuron and Crouch. The men searched an ever expanding spiral, Driver backing up a few yards whenever they approached. Finally they turned and faced each other. Neuron tore off his hat and stomped it flat; Crouch’s wings shot out stiffly to both sides.
“This is unbelievable!” Neuron cried. “I can’t believe it!”
“You?” said Crouch. “I got these outta the deal!” He jabbed a thumb at his wings. “I knew that driver was trouble from the start.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Why should I have to? Oh, I know. Because you’re an idiot!
“How was I supposed to know?”
“He was different than the other drivers.”
“No he wasn’t, he was the same. It’s been the same guy as long as I can remember, and it was him again. You’d notice any little change in that face. It never changes!”
“He was different tonight!”
Sonora put a hand on Driver’s shoulder. “Do you know what they’re talking about?”
Driver shook his head.
“Because, I mean, if you’re something more than what we think, I just want you to know . . . we appreciate it.”
“Really, I don’t have the slightest idea. They’re insane. Look at them now.”
They were tearing at each other, roiling around on the cement. The old man cried out each time Neuron grabbed his wings, and Neuron winced and growled whenever Crouch hammered him on the crown.
“Give them plenty of room,” Sonora said.
Driver pulled away from them completely, starting on a circuit of the stadium’s outer walls. As he drove, he slowly turned his course outward, moving away across the empty parking lot and gaining speed as if they were trying to break away from a planet’s gravitational field, attaining escape velocity so they could fly off into the night.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Sonora asked.
“Getting some distance.”
“What about them, back there?” asked Yvette.
Sonora thought of their friends, the bearded boy, who had taken the drug and wandered into the theater. She hadn’t said goodbye to any of them — hadn’t the chance. “I guess it’ll wear off eventually . . . and then they’ll have to go on. Unless Crouch keeps giving them drugs, and then maybe they’ll be here a long time.”
“No,” Yvette said. “I meant them. In the bunks.”
Sonora had forgotten that the bus was not empty.
“I can stop,” Driver said. “Before we go any farther. We can unload them.”
“What if we need them up ahead?” Sonora said. “What if they really are guides?”
She could imagine them waking in their own time, electing to fly out and scout the way, instead of being rousted irritably and sent half-asleep into the dark on a trivial mission.
“We’ll let them sleep then, for now?” Yvette said.
“I guess. We’re not going back then, are we?”
“I think the bus could make it through, if you wanted to,” said Driver.
“It would have to, wouldn’t it?” said Yvette. “I mean, Neuron got out, didn’t he? He rode this bus in and out between the worlds?”
“But he never stayed out,” Sonora said. “And I think — we only saw him when we’d taken the drugs.”
“I thought he gave them to us, though.”
“Yeah. . . . ”
But that was before she remembered first seeing him. Events were out of order; time did not quite dovetail here. That’s how he did it, she realized — that’s how he gave us what we needed to meet him . . . before we met him. He wasn’t in ordinary time. So he never really reached our world, where each thing follows another, one event gives rise to the next. And we couldn’t really get all the way back there, probably; not even in the black bus, miraculous as it is. We might pull up alongside our old bus and find it crashed on the mountainside, everyone dead — including ourselves. Who’d want to see that?
We can only go forward, she thought. Besides, maybe we weren’t even alive then, in the time before; maybe we were lost in some kind of other place, wandering and vulnerable in a drug-land like the peyote paradise, and that’s how he reached us. We were so used to the sensation of dreaming, with all the drugs we took, and everything seeming so unreal all the time anyway — how would we have known if we’d been dead already?
But we’ve broken that cycle, whatever it was. We’re going on now.
Driver’s foot was on the floor and the bus kept going faster and faster, picking up speed. Ahead of them, against a sky that was slightly lighter than she remembered, she saw not stadium walls but actual mountains.
“You don’t mind driving, do you?” she said, her hand on Driver’s shoulder.
He shrugged. “It’s what I do.” His pained, martyred expression had softened; he looked genuinely content. She realized that she was seeing someone new — not a stranger, but an old acquaintance never seen so clearly until now, and strange because of that. He glanced up into the rearview mirror, meeting her eyes.
“Why don’t you two go in back and try to rest?” he said. “I’m fine up here, alone. I’m not sleepy, myself, and there’s a long drive ahead.”
“All right,” she said. “Come on, Yvette.”
She slipped out of her sandals and crawled back among the pillows with Yvette. They lay down and wrapped themselves in blankets, and she thought of her old companions, forgetting their faces as she had earlier forgotten their names. Soft breathing filled the bus, soothing and hypnotic as the engine sound, but coming from the bunks. Her eyes closed. At the last moment before sleep, she recalled that they had not drawn the shades — and wondered if it mattered. Her eyes flickered open, going to the windows across the way. There were stars now, and suggestions of clouds, high and faintly luminous, or reflecting some distant glow. The sight reassured her; she let go of fear. Then she was a child again, lulled, rocking, asleep.
At the wheel, watching a highway slowly appear out of the receding darkness, Driver could feet the insignificant details of his personality sloughing away with every mile, leaving only the essentials, paring him down to a bare-bone surface solid as the hard, flat road on which the tires hummed. He was, had always been, Driver.
Glancing into the mirror at his sleeping passengers, he was pleased they felt safe enough to sleep. The bus was almost empty, but he knew that eventually it would fill again. Somewhere on the road ahead were numberless hitchhikers and wanderers on foot, pilgrims who might be ready for some company, all headed toward something none of them could name.
Driver kept an eye out for them.
* * *
“The Black Bus” bcopyright 1994 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1994. [This version reconstituted from a scan found on the internet and should be considered provisional, with the usual ocr errors, missing italics, etc.]
I might have been a little high when I wrote this. Just a little.