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My work, my driving work, was done.
We had pierced the shivering membrane of the universe, and the last Way Station was already so distant that it defied imagination.
I can drive here, as my licence will attest, I've earned the right and the bitter nugget of pride that comes with it; regardless it's something that's better off left to the AI. Safer.
But it's not just a driving job; it's a people one, too.
These passengers were my wards.
'You gotta love them. Love them honestly,' Govinda once told me, long ago. 'Every single one of them needs you more than they can ever know.'
I was taking them off world, between worlds; across a lot of space and a lot of time. You take the Highway and there's no going back.
For driver and passenger both.
After Deb died, I took up this job, started running and haven't stopped. When you lose your Everything, driving doesn't look like such a bad deal.
'We're all wounded here,' Govinda said, when she started my training. 'You've just gotta accept it. Gotta work with it.'
Govinda was one of the best, she taught me at the end of her career. But then, careers do not end here; they ripple. You do not leave the highway; not really, there's always echoes. I've come across her several times since, at Way Station bars and the like, but they all predate me.
None of them know of the single night we shared late in my training. An evening that stripped away a little of the pain, or, maybe, made it something else. Because after that night I'd fled her, too, drove away into a different place and time.
Theonly thing worse was the one time I saw myself. An earlier me, driving my first bus, a big and basic model. It hurt, catching a glimpse of my past; certain brutal truths were driven home.
I was sadder, angrier, still struggling with responsibilities that I hadn't even considered would come with the job. Well, that was how I remember it.
But damned if I could see that in my eyes. Because the truth is I don't remember what I was thinking back then. Hell, even if I did, it would be an illusion distorted by the years that separated us, by the things that I have learnt and seen, by the endless mutable miles of the Highway.
I saw the blank incomprehensible face that was my own and realised that time had severed me from my past. Now. Everything is now , perpetually changing, merely coated with a crust of apparent stability. The me on the tip of the wave.
I hid before I could see myself. It's little wonder that few search themselves out at the Way Stations, or look too closely at rigs that could be their own.
No one likes to see their own face and the stranger behind it.
• • •
I got up from the driver's seat and, after a cursory glance at the monitors-everything sitting green and clean-I looked over my passengers.
This is the transportation of the lost. There are other, faster, ways and some that eschew corporality altogether, but none are cheaper than the buses.
However, these travellers must pay in other ways.
The Highways distort time, they are unshielded from relativity or, as some arguments go, extremely susceptible to it. You can end up at a depot a thousand years before you began, or a hundred thousand years after. Something to do with Temporal-Spatial Flex. I've never understood the physics and if anyone asks I can rattle out the TSF ratios and the standard company spiel, but that's where my knowledge ends. I just drive the bus and help my passengers make it through.
What it all boils downs to is this, you pay your money and you take your chances.
If there is any continuity in the universe I have yet to find evidence of it, beyond pain and the Highways. Beyond the road that stretches on forever and the past that drives you along it.
• • •
There were about forty passengers on the bus-thirty of these tuned out-plugged in to whatever personal systems they could afford. The usual stuff, VR simulators, powder fabulators, even a couple of straight-up personal sound systems of the sort you slip into your ears rather than your cortex.
I walked the length of the bus and those who hadn't zoned out clung to me with their eyes. I chatted and calmed, dipped into the all too large collection of lame jokes that I knew, and did my best to take their minds off what was happening. Every single one of them would have fretted enough. You do not make this decision lightly; they deserved a break from their doubts.
Copyright © 2006 Edited by Sonny Whitelaw.