art by Shannon N. Kelly
Bus Ride To Mars
by Cat Rambo
After the men in dark sunglasses ushered Djuna outside, spring's chill chased her up the steps into the bus's welcome heat. She wavered on the last step, suitcase in front of her like a wall, thinking, "My fiftieth spring on Earth, can I really leave that?" Someone pushed at her and she went in.
Inside the bus, aisles ran between three banks of seats upholstered in royal blue, squares of clear plastic clamped onto each headrest. Shadows pocked the aluminum floor.
The bus shuddered away from the curb. Azaleas bloomed in each yard, mop-heads of purple and pink and crimson and the occasional yellow.
Leaving the neighborhood behind, they passed through a wooded area on the town's edge. Fenced-off trees bore carvings featuring pluses and hearts and arrows and one mysterious biohazard marking. Was it warning her, confirming every misgiving about this journey? She could have stayed, somehow. Would have stayed, somehow, refused to remove herself despite the polite gentle insistence of the spirits in black. Could she touch the cord, stop the bus, get off, walk back home?
When in doubt, eat. She'd packed a hamper. Two sandwiches, bacon and crunchy peanut butter on whole wheat, a cooler with a game piece's worth of cheesecake among the ice packs, baby carrots, and celery. Juice boxes. Tofu cubes marinated in sesame oil and soy sauce, and squishy avocado wrapped up in nori.
She had two carrots now, biting them off with angry snaps. Here she went, despite the fact that she'd rather stay home, to Mars, which was also the Afterlife, somehow.
The air smelled like old French fries and stale donuts. An unceasing fan blew down on Djuna, making her extract a sweater from her carry-on. She hadn't expected the Afterlife to have a temperature.
At the front the robot driver drove without ceasing, although she'd been told it would park every six to twelve hours for its passengers' benefit. It wore an absurd blue plastic hat and nothing else.
She treated it like any other journey. She hoisted her rollaway in the overhead shelf, dumped her shoulder bag and coat on the middle seat to discourage seat seekers, and shoved her paperback in the middle seat pocket. The book's cover showed a dolphin curved around a woman, titled Forbidden Waters: A Real Life Odyssey Into Interracial Passion, blue and silver foil waves shimmering around the couple.
She hooked the Traveler's Marvelous Window Garden's suction cups below the window's lip. A silly souvenir bought at the station. She did not read the 8-point-font descriptions on the seed packets, simply shook vermiculite particles from their puffs of plastic into the window box. She planted and watered, read the first two pages of her book and ate another carrot. She was in it for the long haul, the five-day trip to Paradise, Mars.
Most of the other travelers were nondescript. A few stood out, particularly a young woman all in pink and gold, dark hair, a spiral unicorn horn--Djuna couldn't guess whether it was cosmeticked there or some mark of Faerie. Her eyes were saltwater deep, blue as storms. She sat near the front, just behind the driver.
An elderly man in a slouchy cap stared at her like an arborist examining a tree, assessing height and blossom schedule and composition, before sitting down with a sulfur-scented huff in the back of the bus.
A trio of identical blonde… girls? Young women? Hovering on the edge of adulthood. They were late getting on. They wavered near her row, clearly thinking three of us, one of you, but she buried her nose in her book and refused to look up. One cleared her throat, but the others tugged her over to a middle row, towards the back.
Triumphant, Djuna ate another carrot. She looked out the window. Thunder Lanes Bowling. Lightning Shoes. Kang Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine. Fungi Fun-Go. Mi-go Me-go. Shoggoths-R-Us. Strip malls and lanes of traffic. Spirit houses beside the road, edged with gold and crimson paint. She thought of her farmhouse, of the polished banisters, the upstairs and downstairs she had furnished with her thoughts, her dreams, her china cupboards.
A few seats forward, a nerdy boy was interviewing the unicorn girl. She spoke in upper-class, almost accentless English.
"My name is Cristen Night," she said, blinking at the camera. "What should I say?"
"Talk about anything. Talk about what sort of TV you like to watch."
"I like to watch that new show, 'These.' You know the one? It's been around for two seasons, just starting the third."
Nerdboy made a noncommittal sound, gestured at her to keep talking.
"There's the main character, King T, who's married the Queen of the Centaurs and brought her and her sister Emily to live in his palace. It's like a huge cloud castle, all misty white corridors and you know, atmosphere." The plastic creaked as she shifted against it, getting more animated.
"The actor they have playing him is all-vid, latest gen algorithm. Kurt Destiny is the brand. So swank! Dublicious. Anyhow, he was getting married at the end of last season, and all these glims in black show up, laced and gothy. They're wailing and beating on these hand-held drums they wear around their necks. He asks who they are, and they turn out to be genetic constructs whose male counterparts, like their twins, have all died out due to a bad DNA twist. All bereft, widowed twins. They tell him they need him to wrestle this Minotaur thing."
"Why?" Nerdboy adjusted his camera, brought the focus even closer in on her face, her polished horn gleaming like mother of pearl in the bus's overhead lighting.
She shrugged. "Television." She continued.
"There's these two PoWs, Palamon and Arcite. They are in this tower and look out, and see Em--that's the Queen's skanky sister--in the garden, her arms full of red and white roses, and more growing from her jacket. They're big bang crush right off on her, and they start fighting over who loves her the most. Then Arcite gets freed and they argue over who's better off, Palamon, who has the chance of glimpsing her every day, or Arcite, who can go home and raise an army to come and get her with."
The bus jerked to a stop. This close to the sea, salt water rode the wind.
After dinner, the smokers excused themselves as soon as possible from the meal to go outside and power through cigarettes as fast as possible. The man in the suit didn't pretend to eat, just ordered a large coffee, black. He took it outside. By the time Djuna came out of the burger taco squid joint, cigarette butts mounded by the heel of his black snakeskin shoe.
Later some riders watched the blue, soothing light of the evening news on the bus TV screen, which hung down on the driver's right. With headphones in, all she saw was the flicker of faces. She took the headphones off and leaned back. Someone behind her was telling this story:
"I knew this kid, he was a game developer, got snagged by a company fast out of college, bright kid, worked hard, played hard, mountain climbing, kayaking, that sort of thing. Truth be told, he was stronger, had more swagger, than the average geek at his company. He became a bully, lorded it over the other devs. The company let him get away with it because he had the programming chops to back it up.
"He married the CEO's daughter, a geek's daughter, who loved online games as much as any nerdy kid raised on World of Warcraft.
"He was one of those weird, obsessive kids. He'd go and make characters on whatever server his wife was playing on and go grief kill anyone she was flirting with. Over and over again.
"He kept on doing this, rather than working on the games he'd been hired for. He'd try to get his wife into the betas, but she was onto him by that point, wouldn't log into any virtual world he was in, said he was too intense. Of course that just made him more intense.
"When his manager talked to him about his job, he went nutso and accused the manager of having virtually seduced the wife. He'd noticed her playing this one online game, Paradise Garden, an adult encounter game, and when he'd tried to join it, he learned his IP was banned, and all of his credit cards. He said the manager ran the game and that was how the game knew to ban him.
"He went to some sort of halfway house for people that the Internet had damaged. And while he was there, he took up an online relationship with some kid on Mars."
"And you know him, or you know this kid?"
"I'm him. I'm going to meet the kid."