Thank You, Bus Driver - Uncharted

Thank You, Bus Driver

By Richard Brann

She runs a hand across her stomach. It is only the smell of burning meat, she tells herself.

Jorie tells herself this again when the pump disgorges another identical dollop of homegrown beef frothing with lard and sinew that squalls, spluttering, as it slaps onto a grill of mirrored steel. Meat. Vegetables. Minerals, they pay for minerals.

Fat degenerates into oil into smoke that she turns her head from as it releases into the air and dissolves into entropy. The war is over, said the radio again.

There must have been survivors, she thinks. Subterranean industries a mile under. Refugees stranded sufficiently in the hard-fire storms of orbit to weather the worst of the gamma.

The diner is warm in the early evenings. Jorie opens the arrays at dusk to soak up the last of the light.

When she sits in the observatory and wiggles her toes to disrupt the rhythms of the shallow waters, there is nothing to observe but ominous constellations that endlessly realign themselves like the cylinders of a lock only to return, again, to the beginning.

No. Everyone on Fortuna is dead, she thinks. And they died in terror. Even now – at this second – there will be some walking huddled in the afterimage, through the nightmare vales of a corpse moon festering poisoned by radiation so that they are dead in essence too, she knows, and they know, but still they walk because-

Jorie does not want to die that way, as an unheard coda. She finds the cloth doll she keeps stashed behind the counter and strokes the woolen hair distractedly.

Her waystation drifts, last in the chain. She flies in weightless freedom sometimes to inspect the eight hundred tons of equipment – protein generators and solar arrays, water farms, and radio masts – submerged like a scuttled schooner in the brittle silicate of the asteroid.

Another eight hunks of mincemeat slide across the rink. Some leave shimmering contrails of grease that she will scrape into a spiral funnel to be returned, purified, to the generators.

On days when the bells ring, Jorie runs her hands through her torrent of black hair and wraps an apron around her thin frame, the old bones and old scars clinking like glassware rimmed in dust.

She pictures the throngs of cowering people, some half-charred by radiation, limbs made paste by fallen dwellings, some hiding their tattoos and wrapping their sharp-edged faces in soft nanothreads.

The waystation is not far. There will be crowds, sobbing children, a thousand ships of a thousand different makers. Customers with soft and vulnerable bellies.

The clumsy smear of lipstick across her mouth grows taut as the bells, expected, sound their alarm.

The evening bus. They will want food or clarity. She wonders if they know about the war. About the catastrophe. How many feel the distant absence already, the hole in the gut?

When they took her away, they said she was dead, always dead, but I was alive, alive even if I didn’t know why, so I showed them I was alive-

She pushes the memories away, and Jorie’s hands begin to work unconsciously. The asteroid tumbles into the dark, always falling.


In her apron, she is as cheerfully ornamental as the water drum.

Wanderers drift like aimless neutrinos trickling into the diner, groggy from stasis, and Jorie watches their uncomposed faces. All of them are dotted scattershot across the spectrum of those running from the saturated centre. Labourers, a few score or more, with surly brows shrivelled by stress. Drawn to the caffeine like pilgrims. The bankers drink rehydrated water from spotless cups and complain about the taste in their coded self-speak, staccato like shrapnel, faster than sound.

Board won’t pay for luxury.

They’ll pay for second class, and we’ll thank them. Water here’s low quality. Look – calcification. At the first check, had to stow a complaint.

Haven’t upgraded the pumps out here yet. Waste of time.

Waste of money. Three generations back, at least. Recommend upgrade.

Jorie translates in her head. She has heard it before. Here and there, an old colonist with a tablet ready. Their twentieth trip this year. Frugal. All expenses paid—or nothing, he says to his lover, wrinkles receding into hardened trenches.

They can’t know yet, she thinks. Languid, stuck in the slick and easy groove of presupposition.

The crowd of passengers swarm over piles of food and climb the slim spire of the observatory to watch the stars from an original perspective. She feels herself caught in the invisible flash of a hundred cameras.

Bus drivers, though, she knows them.

The smouldering recession of the sun lengthens his squat silhouette. Their shadows cross like duellists’ blades as Jorie steps ahead of his clanking tread.

I’m sorry, she thinks. God – sorry. His twisted frame reminds her of a chain of bells. Thick segments of machinery envelop his stunted arms and legs so that he must stand three feet wide, barely taller than his own metallic girth, raising dust from the floor with each hydraulic step, venting exhaust. Muscles made of straight lines.

His domelike head decorated with thin strands of grey woven with brown raises itself; it is the only human anatomy on display. His nose has been broken more than once, shattered in two different directions.

Coffee, he says. Please. Can’t work the machine myself.

She pours him one from her own tap and watches a passenger bounce like a snooker ball into the back of another to start a torrent of giggles. Can’t handle suspension. Drunk on cryonics. Got the bends.

Only the countertop separates them so that his caged, twisted body is secreted away into happy nonexistence.

You heard? He says.

Jorie nods. The black rings around her eyes must look like burns, she thinks.

She was never meant to be quiet, her mother used to say. Her voice is stridently digital – on or off. Still, she holds a tone above a stage whisper.

The war is over, she says.

Funny way to put it, says the driver. A lot more over than the war.

She does not break from the gaze.

He asks, They tell you what happened?

Jorie nods. Fission strikes all over. Thermonuclear bulkheads that the State missed.

The driver’s grin implodes into a spiderweb of tanned tissue, lines going this way that way. He rests a hand shrouded in a cone of computerised steel on her countertop.

Control told us on our driver’s beacon. Not sabotage. Emira did it himself. End the siege, end the war. End everything. If Fortuna can’t be his – well, you know how the saying goes, eh?

She runs a hand across her grease-smeared apron to stifle the rising bile.

On the radio, they said the last census was-

Weren’t wrong, he replies in a voice that scrapes like tectonic plates in deadlock. Sixty million. Count them. A moon reduced to a celestial lump of poison.

The seconds fall away from them. The bus driver sits on a stool and drinks mechanically. His eyes droop when he sweeps the satellite of his head around. The stare is probing.

Not seen you before, he says.

She is pretending to be busy, shuttling hard glasses through the steamers and towards the flock of passengers whose voices rise and fall like the sea.

Arrived on the last rotation, she replies quietly. Last girl wanted a replacement. Too far out for her. You reckon Emira might’ve survived?

Dead. Dead or close enough, he says.

And sixty million with him. Jorie imagines the Duke of Fortuna bound and gagged in an oubliette, breath rusted by gamma poisoning. Readied for some light torture. Imagines the unchained scatter of his escaping laughter like weightless helium, the sorrow and the thunder. Nothing left to lose, to gain. If she counted to sixty million – well, she wouldn’t be much use for anything, she supposes, and the State would put her in a clinic to ossify out.

Jorie’s black-rimmed eyes dilate, focus in, focus out. I told them to burn her. Why did I tell them to burn her?

They say Emira had two hundred kids, she says.

The driver replies, I’m sure he loved them all equally.

She slides her feet across and kindly negotiates with a passenger. No, home won’t cover it. Sorry – sorry, bring it up with the buses. Yes. Just scan there. No, there-

The driver is watching her, narrow and calm. Jorie can feel him like a blister in the periphery. She cannot help it; the steely chariot of his body leaves her touched by an absurd sense of absence, of nakedness. Coffee trickles into his fleshy throat. His goitre pulses.

Jorie dance back over her little kingdom’s border, firing remarks at customers who come close, smiling, ever-smiling, polishing the high walls of the countertop as she goes. She finds herself pulled back towards him by necessity.

When he raises his arm entombed in its slab of living steel, she sees the crimson festering of the flesh beneath, the mottled white scars where his genes ran wild and untempered, their bonds worn down to mere suggestion.

One in forty thousand, he says without looking up.


Me. One in forty thousand. Geneticists get it wrong. Snip away at the little baby’s helices just once too often. One in ninety thousand officially. More if you ask the right sorts.

Well, I’m sorry, she says.

The driver’s lips, amber like beer, split with warmth. He waves off her sincerity. Through the encompassing expanse of the window, she sees sunlight pierce through an asteroid shaped like some giant’s cradle.

Jorie raps her polished fingers against the countertop, her left hand unconsciously keeping count of the oxygen index for her report. Always more to count. Portions of pastries piled high like snowdrifts, warehouses of protein blocks in pyramids. Meat and mead, milk and honey. She counts on the left side of her brain and intuits on the other.

You didn’t tell them, says Jorie. Her tone is fluid, soft as silk.

And the bus driver looks up, rigid, from the oily plate.

No, he says—and the words are damming a river—I didn’t. I turned off passenger reception once we were four deviations away from Fortuna. Buses had to run on time.

War’s over, driver, she says. You’ll have to tell them yourself.

They’d only ask to turn back, he says, brusque and curt. We can’t. How can we?

She asks, how will you break it to them?

The driver rises in a ceremony of a thousand little moving parts. Hydraulics scream in the musculature of his legs.

When we get there, he says. When we get there. Bus doesn’t stop, not ever.

After, long after, he turns to guide a passenger, lost, babbling their fear, to the dock. Jorie might make a keen spy. She sees his eyes buried in their recesses are quivering with tightness.

There are days when her scars hurt as if each cell were torn open, the narrow bars of stitches burst like overripe grapes. Jorie holds her hand across her belly and grasps the diner’s counter to stabilise her fall, tracing with an engineer’s hand the path of the pain, the density of the clotted skin.

She feels oil pooling beneath her fingers.


Jorie is idle.

The swinging door to the bathrooms is sent spinning, frantic, as the woman crashes through it, her hands like shrunken octopi risen to her head and pours out a scream of anguish that cuts cleanly through the diner.

Time bloats. Becomes sluggish. Even the asteroids steady their descents. The woman’s cry extends and modulates, in some terrible biological frequency that numbs Jorie’s synapses, like prey before a predator.

And then the hot spring dries up and eternity restarts.

I left him behind, cries the woman in her flowing weave of spun jade. I left him behind!

She whirls and whips in a wet and abstract mania; she tumbles across the diner without falling. Might be falling forever, thinks Jorie, falling without ever hitting the floor. Like Sisyphus, gone to ground at last.

The woman’s eyes are still and unseeing; the milky web across them marks her blindness. When she brings her arms wrapped in slender coils of green nylon to the floor, Jorie sees the South Poles of two brown irises rolled upwards like curtains.

I left him behind, the woman says. Her voice congeals, slurred. I left him-

Jorie relays strength into her forearms; she leaps over the border to land on the floor of the diner, arms like bollards thrown out in embrace.

The room is emptied. Her customers have returned to the bus, to chatter and chirrup as the suspension tanks secrete cold into their veins. So Jorie stands alone, the last knight on the checkerboard floor, waiting for her opponent to stop moving.

I left him behind, the woman sobs. Please. Please, can we go back?

Jorie waits for the torrent of words to falter, trying – failing – to summon words to sequester the passenger’s grief.

In the seething panic, she is briefly aware of a figure behind her shoulder, a man of alabaster silks manifesting from a door. Jorie throws herself between them.

She must quarantine, must keep them safe-

He shoves his way past her, deaf to her plea, and clasps the writhing, wailing woman by the shoulders in an ineffectual lock. Jorie staggers at the sight of him.

No twins were ever so alike, she thinks. Their faces might have been printed from identical moulds.

Brother and sister, yes. But even those clothes are cut from the same homogenous cloth. The colour cannot hide it. Even the dimple in the chin is identical to the millimetre, visible only as the thrashing twins, straining in deadlock, arch their heads like howling wolves into the crackling neon of the lights.

Twin faces rise from the mass of limbs flailing to restrain or extricate. He holds his sister by the arms; she skids on the floor and at the end of the motion she rakes layered talons across his face. He withdraws in time. Her nails don’t break the skin but leave harsh grazes.

I’m here, he gasps in pain. El, I’m here, I’m here.

I left him behind, says his sister. We have to go back, we left him there, left him behind.

The woman tears herself away from her twin, dancing, eyes still blank and rolling; the enamel rings embedded in her dress flying for a brief moment before she sinks down into a ball, still wailing the refrain.

Her draping sleeves have come undone; the loose ends hang down, snakes with steel teeth, glinting where they once held baroque and regal to her ruddy forearms.

Jorie tears her apron off and runs to the injured half.

His mouth hangs open, ligaments slack. One ringed hand strokes the strange new marks on his cheek.

Bad reaction to cryonics, he says in dumb quiet. She hasn’t traveled for years.

Are you hurt?

He says she didn’t even bleed. I should’ve known. Sleepwalkers can’t be allowed breaks at the waystations. I just wanted her to—to stretch her legs.

Footsteps. And then the driver has her, has the sleepwalker in the gentle prison of his arms. He grunts with the strength, the strength of holding back a bomb trying to go off. The woman is writhing and shaking still, her unconsciousness a wild tyrant, and her flying fists and legs clatter against the driver’s shell.

Jorie slips the twin an antiseptic and guides him to safety.

The driver grunts, says, You didn’t tell her anything sensitive, did you, Jorie?

No, whispers Jorie. I wouldn’t. She doesn’t know. Can’t.

Earthborn. A poet. Academic, says the bus driver. A socialite. Paid for food and drink beforehand. An evident sleepwalker. Jorie watches him scrutinise the static bursts of data that deliver themselves to his wrist.

Sedate her, says Jorie. Knock out anything still left in there.

I left him behind, the poet says again, and her twin buries his aquiline head in his hands.

The woman born on Earth throws herself across the room like a ballet dancer, and Jorie reaches – madly – and grabs her wrists. She howls as the bus driver holds her to a table by sheer bulk.

A squirming needle of anaesthetic rises from his shell. It drips; it creeps towards the thrashing body.

And a second later, it stops.

Driver, says Jorie. Driver!

His face is trapped in a confused rictus. The driver’s face drains of blood; his eyes dilate as they scan his wrist’s busy data sheet. Something is wrong. There is a solution here that is not resolved; there is something rogue in the subroutine.

In her constriction, the woman lets out a cry that scars Jorie’s eardrums and leaves a wound in her heart, like the piteous wail of a trapped animal. No way out. No way forward.

The driver pulls the sedative away a fraction and loosens his grip for a moment.

The poet swings an arm like a missile strike. The razor hook on the end of her unspooled sleeves slices, unerring and unlucky, through the exposed collarbone below the driver’s neck. Jorie closes her eyes at the sound of sundered flesh and forces them open again. Blood and torn tissue are spattered across the life support shell in grim irony.

Driver, says Jorie. The needle is still hanging like an executioner’s axe, poised, frozen in the museum of the moment. He will not do it.

Jorie has slipped a hand beneath the countertop before she even realises. The stun patch is leaden with electromagnetic potential. Foil of drunks and bullies, don’t fail me now. When she raises her arm above the scrapping pair, the woman’s flailing sleeve, with its glistening fang, cuts across Jorie’s ribs and draws a slender line of blood.

Yes, thinks Jorie. The exchange must be equivalent.

And on her turn, she slams the stun patch down atop the woman’s bare shoulder. Activates with an efficient hum. The sudden whipcrack recoil of electric discharge is softened by relief as the woman slumps at last into sleep. The heavy poet-eyelids close. Her perfect twin, crumpled onto a stool, begins to sob. Wracked with tremors.

The driver remains, his slender anaesthetic still quivering, ready to descend.

Well, thanks, he says.

Jorie stares, speechless, at his laceration thick with clotting blood, at the body, at the impotent needle. She gathers her apron in her free hand to stop it shaking.

The bus driver blinks at her and gestures to the sleeping woman.

Allergic to sedative, he says. Sorry about your kitchen.


There’ll be more, he murmurs. Jorie lays an antiseptic over the raw edges of the wound in his collarbone. Lays cement across the fissure. The skin spits and bubbles, nerves placated, knitting back into a semblance of normality. But the scar will always be there. His genes cannot erase them so easily.

Jorie sees the white nodes massed below his shoulder. Glimpses the desiccated contractions of his body, pale, starved of light. The tomb is keeping him alive. It packs him together like a piece of unpredictable freight. All that steel, the circuitry, it must weigh him down enormously. But then, the shell can move itself perfectly well. The body is superfluous.

More? Her lips rustle like paperwork.

Running from Fortuna, he says acidly. Running from the mass graves. Refugees fleeing internment. Sick children searching for hospitals. Fission specialists trying to salvage precious metalloids. Here. Soon.

She scrapes off excess cement and lays another trough of antiseptic over the pockmarked skin.

This is the omen, then, replies Jorie. The thoughts rise and surface like bubbles before she can digest and reinterpret them.

He curses at the pain, over and over. Don’t give me that tone, says Jorie briskly. I’ll have none of that.

Then suddenly, she says, This is the precedent. A sleepwalker. Three injuries. A mess of reports. A few – stains –

And suddenly, her hand is shaking again, so she must pull it away before she deals him more harm.

I wanted this place to be quiet, she says, syllables spat out like bullets. Quiet. Safe!

Won’t get quiet, says the bus driver. Won’t get safe. They’ll tell you stories. Show you the burnt flesh. A baby’s toy kept in a lead box so they can’t get it. The cancers and the melanomas boiling away like bomb fuses. Might have to lie to internment agents. Might have to sedate a child. Might have to do it alone.

Jorie collapses into her second-favourite chair in the office and regrets giving the nasty old bastard her favourite.

Now you, he says, unsteady as he rises. He inspects a brand of sealant for her blood type and aligns it with professional precision, like a telescope.

Oh no, says Jorie. No, no, no. I’m fine.

Antiseptic isn’t enough, he says, exasperated, as if explaining to a precocious child. The skin is cut clean. Won’t heal properly without applying cement.

Jorie shakes her head, keeps shaking her head, but she does not react as he advances.

The sight of his butcher’s face so close to hers makes her shrink back when she opens her eyes. He might be a survivor of that nuclear rapture himself, stitched together with warped tissue and resealed scars. No. He is the product of a slip of a geneticist’s finger.

Warmth and the gentle tickle of clotting blood spreads across the shallow cut. The driver spreads cement in efficient layers and begins to apply antiseptic.

Long time before you can go home, the driver says. Long time before you can rotate out. Since the moment those bombs went off, you were trapped for the duration. One more victim of Emira’s madness.

He plucks with a scalpel and asks, Anyone you need to tell the bad news to?

Her smile is wan. An ex-husband, she says. Gone back to accounting for the Department of Minerals. Both mothers still at home. They can barely hear the phone, or their carers. Think I’m called Maggie, or Meg.


No. Never, because, you see, it wasn’t alive, really, wasn’t ever actually, in technical terms, alive, to use the proper medical language-

We tried, she says in a matter-of-fact way. Just once. A natural birth.

The bus driver’s face doesn’t shift a molecule, not in sympathy or remorse. He continues to scrape layers of cement from her quavering ribcage, the bones stark as mountains.

I didn’t want to let the genetics people get their hands on my eggs, she says, arms crossed across her stomach in defence. We didn’t want to just go to the hospital and pick up the baby like a bag of vitamin powder. We wanted the pain. We wanted the – I don’t know – the experience! Something natural – something simple.

Jorie shrinks into her nucleus, her head turned away from his brute hands, and her arms coiled around herself.

I know, the driver responds quietly. There are other scars here.

She says, We took all the safety courses. We took gene cleanses. Even in raw births, the chances of something going wrong are under a percent – a percent at best.

Don’t talk to me about probabilities, the driver chuckles. Jorie looks at the decay, the unwillingness to cooperate in every cell of his system, and, suddenly, feels absurdly guilty, as if she had done this terrible thing to him.

We knew the risks, she says. You can’t blame bad luck on anything.

You’re preaching to the bishop, he says, voice caustic. I hope it didn’t hurt too much.

What do they call those indescribable experiences – qualia? Events that cannot be described without experiencing them – the senses, the smells?

It hurt enough, Jorie says. Stillborn. They had to cut her out of me…

She was dead all along, and I was alive, and when I started screaming, I thought my soul would pour into hers, exchanged so that she could live and I could die. Does that make sense? She was meat, and I was impotent to animate her.

On nights when the suns are creeping into view of the asteroid field Jorie runs her hands across the pillows, thinking there might be someone there. When she goes to the mirror she focuses her eyes on her face, avoiding the recession of her stomach, erasing, from acknowledgement and existence, the emaciation of her waist. The emptying space is no less pronounced than the driver’s genetic decay.

The other women who gave birth naturally all had did fine, she says in a resigned sort of manner. They came to see me. Company gave me psychiatrics for a fortnight.

And then the long, dark fog of annulment, the fog of collapse and reassignment by a new hand. She will not think of that.

He stands up, smile split like a triumphant architect. Sorted, he says. Sorry if there’s any pain. Simply can’t be avoided, eh.

Jorie’s grimace is louder than her silence.

We can’t have them, he says, not unkindly. Little brats. Got a partner at home, and he writes letters – long rambling things – about it. Still illegal. They’d be more boxed up than I am if it went wrong under the hood.

She raises an eyebrow as they walk out onto the observation platform. The glistening vault of stars above them is a relief; it is good to know they are still there, trapped in their shades of blue. Jorie is light-headed.

You know, I nearly voted for Matchek, says Jorie.

You fascist, says the bus driver. I should’ve let that poet kill you.

She looks over anxiously; he is holding back a grin, keeping himself deadpan.

I thought he’d end the war, she says simply. He said the right things. Most of them.

If you like. I wouldn’t be driving that bus anymore, though.

Jorie thinks of the internment platforms she saw prepared like jaws above Fortuna, the day she skated across the besieged orbit of the moon on her way to the waystation’s solace. All those ships. All that retribution coiling like a serpent waiting to strike.

I didn’t vote for him, though, she says. You know I’d never.

I’m sure it’s just because you care too much, says the driver. Your heart is just overflowing with goodwill.

But he is still smiling as they return to the diner, and Jorie begins to close the fuel valves for the day.

You’re an engineer by trade, he says. You must be, to work out here.

She nods, a hand desperately squirming to turn one of the high locks. It is designed for someone taller.

Can you fly? He asks.

Anything smaller than a fourth-gen frigate, she says. I flew myself out here.

He is at the door before she notices. Silhouetted against the monstrous window between them and the stars, he seems shrunken, even tired. The rattle of the cogs, the busy hum of the machinery in each furnaced segment of his inhuman body, it all seems quieter.

Well, good luck, Jorie, he says. Take a flight every now and then.

Leaving quickly, she says. Her waitress’s smile snaps into a frown.

The buses never stop, he replies. There must always be a driver.

There are some lost variables that are unresolved in the equations that Jorie cannot pluck out.

Have we met before? She asks. You never told me your name. Have we ever met before?

I’ll be around again soon enough, he says. The buses never stop. But they return.

And he is gone. There is a moment of decompression when he leaves, as if the pressure wall were on the verge of collapse, fighting the mathematics for survival, and then Jorie breathes again, and it dissipates like smoke.


The flash of atom-fire is nothing like the roar of burning hydrocarbons. Jorie cooks a handful of root vegetables in a pot of burning sesame for her own quiet supper. There is no mushroom cloud in the mushroom.

News will be out by now, she thinks. An ecstasy of wailing, of hand-wringing. What could have been done differently? What can we do?

She cannot answer except to wait, to stand strong like a sea wall. There will be people here, in hours, in days, and weeks, in need of food, in need of serving, in need of repair, needing a cook, a waitress, an engineer. Someone to care. No one on Fortuna could have survived the cataclysm. But those who did will come here, to her hidden reserves.

My god, she will be tired. Sleep will find her in the end but she will run from it, because there is so much to do. Jorie traces over the scars in her belly. At long last she summons strength to run her fingers over their entirety, to bring them to their end.

She will have no time for thought. In the beginning, there was the deed; hers was immutable as the lodestone. Maybe, afterwards, there will be time for joy in them.

Now Jorie runs. So little time left. Be here soon. She brings the cloth doll, the one she bought for her daughter, clutched in one hand scrubbed of entropic oil. Takes the in-case-of-emergency craft for a looping jaunt around the asteroid. The smooth grain of the controls is like the warmth of a handshake. She can spot the mysterious storm-smiles of distant planets at the apex of her flight; she will be able to guide wounded starships into port.

Can you fly? The driver had said.

Can I fly?

Jorie, engineer, waitress, cook, pilot, immovable, sends the slim craft into a downward tailspin, waiting for the moment before destruction to pull upwards into a triumphant gradient, drunk on adrenaline, on release.

She did know who that bus driver was, she thinks.

The gravity rush of the dive is rich nectar. Pressure flattens her thoughts into iron axioms.

They will be here soon, the children, the survivors. She must be with them.

Jorie ascends.

About the Author

Richard Brann is a British language teacher living in Vienna, Austria. He writes journalistically in his spare time and has very recently made the move to fiction writing. This is his first publication.

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