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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Bus Ride To Mars

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her work can be found in such places as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010, and her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories, appeared in 2007. This is her fourth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. [Go to www.dailysciencefiction.com and check out the others!] Her website is www.kittywumpus.net
Day One
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."
Silence. Djuna wondered what he looked like. The other voice said, "I thought you said he was young."
"Sure. Twenty years ago, before he went into jail and then the house. He was young back then. I was young back then."
"How old is the kid you're going to meet?"
"She's 18. Cute and smart and funny, and wants someone to help her run the restaurant she inherited. Life's good." He drummed restlessly on the back of the seat, and she wondered again who he was, which of the crowd he was, as he repeated himself. "Life's good."
Day Two
In the rumble of early morning, the Traveler's Marvelous Window Garden was filled with silvery green shoots, soft as toothbrush bristles. Djuna ran her palm over the surface and stared outside. A construction site surrounded the highway, orange plastic, then yellow, then olive green, then concentration blue, and tangles of machines and signs that pointed forward and backward, up and down. The bus lurched, swaying from lane to lane.
In the bathroom she stared at her too-pale face in the jerk-surfaced mirror as she brushed last night's flavor from her mouth and washed her hands with vanilla ginseng bubble pearl soap. She didn't bruise herself changing into a fresh shirt, even though she collided with the walls. She'd always bruised easily, banged into door frames and tripped on missing top stairs. She'd lost the ability to be bruised, though, somewhere along the way.
Was that how it went, were the dead unaffected by any events? Was that why they resorted to story after story, half-glimpsed or fragmentary or laboriously whole? They were all the same effort.
When she returned to her seat, she found that the bus had entered the Underwater Tunnel. Outside, she could see the rivets and glass holding back seawater, and the silvery slide of fish past that. The children were glued to the window, and the three blondes stood near the forward luggage rack, taking turns to gaze out. One flicked her hair away from her flat smooth forehead, and within a few seconds, the others followed suit, made the same gesture.
Behind her--which was the Internet junkie, on his trip to meet a kid, a child? Was it the flat-faced, pleasant-haired man, or the one beside him, who looked surlier, bruised like a peach bounced down the road by life? Maybe that tubby middle-aged man wearing the Darth Vaderix Giz-Pop t-shirt or the very polite looking elderly man. Two looked back at her then let their eyes slide away.
Later that day, around two o'clock bus time, or so the buzz went, they'd be stopping in Elfland as they passed through. Just as one of the blonde girls, who said her name was Magda, confided this to Djuna, the robot driver announced it over the intercom.
Its voice buzzed like a wasp: At 2:35 PM, we will be stopping at the Elfland Border Park and Shop. You will have one hour, fifteen minutes for meal and recreational purposes. Please return to the bus promptly at the appointed time. The announcement stopped with an admonitory pop and crackle of static and the robot continued staring forward, its metal claws buried in the steering column, maneuvering the bus along the twenty-lane highway.
Signs swooshed past, underwater settlements, sometimes just single homes clinging to the side of the tunnel like a barnacled bubble: Who-ville, Perelandra, Surf N' Turf, Dagon's Deeps, Bucket and Tub, Tile Place, Atlantis. Atlantis looked like a fancy resort. Buses and small, gimcrack cars with their tops down filled its parking lot to its attendant booth gills. Djuna counted cars and tried to convince herself that she wasn't really on the way to Mars. She was at home, snug in bed or on the couch with a cat curled on her stomach.
Nerdboy was interviewing a bristle-haired woman, standing with his camera transfixed by her face.
"My name is Tulip Song," she said. Her face was lined as though by weather, but a chemical edge to the redness made Djuna think she was younger than originally estimated.
"Are you going to Paradise?" Nerdboy asked. He smirked, and Djuna sensed a tagline for the documentary in his head. Are you going to Paradise? Indeed.
She said, "I am."
"In order to..."
"I'm going to visit my childhood servant."
Did she say servant or sweetheart? Djuna wasn't sure, and her following words didn't point her in either direction.
"A little girl name of Laura--I haven't seen her in over half a century! Oh, how I look forward to seeing her!"
In Djuna's book, the woman wondered if the dolphin really liked her while the dolphin wondered if she really liked him.
Tulip Song simpered but said nothing more about Laura. Djuna wondered what Laura thought, waiting for the child mistress. What would it be like to grow up with servants at hand? Who did that, any more?
Elfland was disappointing, too neon and clove scented, too ready to hawk jeweled bridles and flasks of love potions. The passengers ate a late lunch there, including fresh fruit from the little goblins hawking grapes and strawberries and apricots in the rest stop parking lot. Djuna sat among the ancient oaks, filled with gloom and doom and signs warning her not to go too far into the trees.
The cheap fruit was sweet, so delicious that she ate it all within an hour or two of having re-boarded the bus, which swayed its way up the Elfland Entrance Ramp, 77BAA. She licked her fingers clean long past the time when the savor had left them. This would have embarrassed her more if she hadn't noticed others doing the same. The children were uniformly asleep, drooling like opium smokers. The elderly man had bought a birdcage with three blue butterflies in it. They sang the same tiny shrill song, over and over again.
She leaned back in her seat and pulled the blanket over her like a shield. She held her fingers up to her nostrils underneath the blanket, and smelled the apricot perfume on her skin as she licked the memory of goblin fruit from them, each finger in turn.
Day Three
The plants of the Traveler's Marvelous Window Garden had split into two kinds of plant: heart-shaped, fuzzy leaves and fern fronds salad-suitable, tasting of thyme and lemon.
The bus climbed, up and up, a slant that continued for an hour, maybe more, before they broke into sullen sunlight and saw the Space Needle glimmering, gulls overhead. The bus stopped at the station there, and the travelers got out to stretch their legs. Three new passengers got on: a pair of tattooed kids, and an elderly woman with short grey hair and no nonsense running shoes. Within a few minutes of her arrival, the man in the slouched hat was next to her, talking. Waiting near the bathroom, Djuna overheard:
"You look at me and you don't see much, but once I was a sales guy, such a sales guy I could sell kittens to cats and the dry litter left over to a cactus. The home office loved me, they sent me to Boston, Bangkok, Berlin, one time to Baltimore, you name it."
"I used to sell things too," she said. "And trade. One time I started with an empty glass jar to trade and ended up with an entire house, and two ponies, and a basket full of mushrooms."
"One time I promised to sell the moon."
"I told a woman I'd give her fifty percent off on true love."
"I got a guy to approach me about buying his mother's name."
"I bought and sold genders, three for a buck."
"Every time I touch a Ouija board, I'm selling ad space in Hell."
She peed and washed her hands for the fifteenth time this journey, gloomily estimating the cleanliness level by the end of the trip. She made bargains with herself. If anyone complained about the rain, she'd just go home and skip Mars. If anyone said the word "fish" or "petunia". If the blonde girls looked at her and smirked one more time. None of this happened.
The man in the suit was gone. Djuna was glad he wasn't continuing to Paradise. Something about the way that he looked at her made her think he would be fine here in Seattle.
Tulip Song was talking to Nerdboy again, some long story full of cufflinks and bell jars and errors of circumstance.
But Djuna's attention was caught elsewhere: out on the street an old woman swept with a broom while another one, almost identical, with her skirts hiked up, pissed in the gutter. As she watched, the first woman saw the second, came running, belabored her with the broom while the second continued pissing before gathering herself and walking away.
On the road again, they rolled over a lake, another lake. Mountains and more lakes and pines. The landscape shifted. Black and white magpies appeared on the fence poles. Darkness overtook the bus as it traveled on.
Day Four
The Traveler's Marvelous Window Garden gave Djuna tiny, perfect pears, sweet as melancholy, and stalks of pink-ribbed celery. She ate a bite of pear, of peanut butter sandwich, of pear, peanut butter, pear as the road rolled past. Flat here, all monotonous wheat fields and the great green circles of irrigation. A small town passed by in a succession of churches and garage sales and one monumental ball of twine. The road stretched like string, taut as heartache and goodbye, leading her into the future.
At evening, they pulled into Lawrence and the Burroughs Space Lift. People milled around while waiting for the bus to be loaded into a transport. The station was vast, high-ceilinged. Some of the travelers were not human: mutants and tentacled Martians, gelatinous Ood and frond-waving Barbai like cinnamon-scented bushes. Clones and steam-powered constructs and every kind of robot, from man-muscled brass and silver Adonis to tech robots as unadorned as vacuum cleaners.
The elderly woman and the man in the slouched hat sat outside in the humid air. The air smelled of exhaust and wheat and dying flies. Djuna sat near them and ordered a Tecate and listened. The sugar packets on the table showed balloon-bellied zeppelins.
This time the woman talked. She said:
"I knew a woman who was a marvelous inventor, who built things of jackstraw and metal gears as thin as paper. She built a house, and she kept building inwards, until she grew as thin as a serpent, coiled among her books and magazines and old lanterns."
"What did you sell her?" The man sounded sullen as a chess board, slouched in his seat as though cement-set. "Space?"
"Death," she said. "The ultimate closet."
The hamper was almost empty, but Djuna took out the cheesecake as she felt the shudder and grip of the Space Elevator, of the transport moving her, inexorably, into the sky. She ate it as though saying goodbye to its flavor.
They said the red dust of Mars got into the food, you couldn't get the iron tang to the grit there anywhere else, the taste that had old Martians licking rust in their retired days in too green places.
She thought about crawling out the window, jumping off into space. What would happen then? It could be anything, really. Like a sitcom or a wonderful book or a musical. She'd always thought it would be pleasant to live in a world where people spontaneously broke into song.
If the window didn't open? She'd have to smash it, perhaps with the heel of her shoe. Complicated and messy and loud. Would it really be worth it?
Djuna fell asleep dreaming of the sad surge upwards, the struts of her ascent. Of depressed gremlins clinging to a plane's wing, of balloons at dusk over a prairie's red sweep, of the smell of rain-kissed earth. She dreamed of the left-behind life, and told it to herself, but the story was dull, days strung on knotted twine, uniformly even and bland as pudding. When did her story begin? Had it yet? Was it done before it had really begun?
Day Five
The bus was still moving, she could feel it, when she woke in the small hours of the morning. Almost everyone on the bus was asleep. She could hear gentle snores and snorts and the humming of the ventilation system. Outside the stars hurtled past as they went up and up. Below them, the world was the size of a half-shadowed duckpond dwindling to a lilypad.
She contemplated the journey as the bus rose through the darkness. She thought about Point A and Point B and the distance in between. She thought about the impossibility of staying at Point A, of poltergeists and zombies and seances full of dust. When she exhaled, the fronds of her marvelous plant stirred and swayed as though they wanted to whisper something.
She read the last page of her book, and then the advertisements in the back, and then the back cover, and then the numbers of the UPC code. She added them up, and understood what they mean, what the bus represented, and why there was no way to go back. Her story was not done, had not yet experienced its Freitag's triangle, its rising action (though surely she was rising now?), its climax, its denouement like the shuddering release before one curls into the seats knowing that the story is done and the lights will come up soon. Stories flowed around her, predicting and shaping her own, as though now were the moment of her birth, the moment she began to speak.
Red dust dunes pulled past, lazy armadillo shapes repeated over and over again. She looked for fellow characters out in the rusty sand, or even footsteps or a bit of discarded paper, its letters desiccated and spider like. But the landscape was an empty frame waiting to be occupied.
The other passengers were restless. The unicorn girl could not stare out the window easily; her horn tip collided with the plastic, had knocked it painfully once or twice when the bus had jolted. So she stood near a window, bracing herself with an arm, watching the horizon and the sun glaring censoriously overhead.
They pulled into Paradise at dusk. Djuna left her trash in the seat. Someone would come by and clean it after all, and her finished book would be a bonus prize for some lucky cleaner interested in dolphin sex.
The air smelled of iron as she rolled her bag across the bus's pockmarked floor, exited and inhaled, curious. Glass stretched overhead in an enormous dome, etched with ravens and thunderbirds. Hope entered in at the soles of her feet and made her stand straighter. No turning back. This was Paradise, after all.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 24th, 2012

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