A Bus The Stars by Emily
A Bus To The Stars
by Emily Nueges
The moon looked down upon me like an open eye. To my right was a blue sign with a small white vehicle on it. I hoped it would take me where I was going. Above me the stars danced and called me forward, all landmarks on a map I knew too well. Looking at them began to make me queasy. On these dimly lit streets with winds sweeping my hair to and fro carried with them a scent of life. In the distance, a fluorescent, twinkling cluster of light was my destination. And now, drifting along the street like a mammoth, were two strong beams that blinded my vision.
The autonomous machine came to a stop before me and let out a painful wheeze. The door folded neatly like paper and revealed a sturdy woman with a stern glare. Her hair was so strictly curled I wondered if it would shatter from a single touch. A strong scent emanated from the ride– something unsavory and foreign. Like rocks and dirty metal on the tip of my tongue. I gave her an uncertain glance, but her assertive bravado magnified and I felt forced upon the machine.
“Welcome aboard,” she said with a distant, sarcastic voice. Only one person accompanied us on this vehicle, an elderly man tucked away in the back with a brown garment laid over his arms and legs. He looked comfortable with his jaw ajar. I took my place behind the woman after giving her a warm smile only to be greeted with a transparent stare. The vehicle hummed, the door unfolded itself, and the woman pulled an odd lever which I assumed controlled our movement. At first, I was surprised how slow we moved. I occupied myself with the views from the window. There were jet-black trees with leaves that swayed in the cold night breeze and more cement from the other side of the road. Beyond the sounds of the engine gasping for air there were periodic chirping and cooing noises coming from the forest adjacent to the street. I could barely make out anything from my surroundings, much less recognize the foliage to determine where I was. The window got boring fast, so I turned my attention to the woman.
I broke the silence. “Hello there!” I said with a cheery tone. A couple moments passed with no response. “I’d like to make conversation with you, ma’am. What’s your name?” I heard her exhale deeply from her nose.
“Couldn’t you read my nametag for that?” Her voice was full of resignation.
I swallowed as my eyes searched between the seats and the helm, the symbols surrounding her too foreign for me to make out. The air between us became stale. “Well, that wouldn’t be a proper introduction!” I let out a nervous laugh. “If it makes you feel better I can tell you mine first. I’m Tadpole!”
“What kind of name is Tadpole? How old are you, anyway? I been havin’ too many kids run off from their parents to see the city. It ain’t smart, y’know.”
I wracked my brain for the number I was meant to say. “Oh, no– I’m, uh, twenty-one, ma’am. I’m using this transportation only as a means to get home.”
“And where do you live, exactly?” Her piercing eyes focused on me from the small reflective surface above, full of suspicion.
“Hey!” I couldn’t help but release another awkward chuckle. “You never told me your name!”
“What a beautiful name!” I squeezed the plump fabric connected to her seat. It was rough, but felt soft. The pattern looked like multicolored galaxies spread across a vast universe.
“Not really. Anyway, kid, I don’t want to play games. I know you’re not twenty-one and I know you don’t live in Newport. Why don’t you tell me the truth before I kick you off at the next bus stop?”
“No!– I-I mean… I can tell you the truth. On one condition: please do not kick me off of this… ‘bus’?”
Her eyes darted to me in the reflective glass overhead as if I said something horribly offensive. “Are you foreign or something? Did you really not know the word ‘bus’?”
“Um…” I sheepishly smiled. The bus went silent for a bit. I could feel the cold, artificial breeze from the tiny grates near Margaret, and my fingertips began to tingle. It was an odd sensation. I was also aware of this unusual passage of time– my legs began to ache from the uncomfortable seat and the man had begun snoring in the back. The glowing clock at the helm of the bus hardly changed each time my eyes wandered over to it. This scenery was unlike anything I was used to, and my increasing fears started to cause a pit in my stomach unlike anything I’d ever felt. I let out a sigh. “You’re right– I’m not from this city. Nor the town, nor the country. I’m not from this Earth.”
I looked up at her, expecting shock or intrigue. However, she was silent with her eyebrows furrowed. I decided to keep going. “I was dropped here very recently. I was barely able to learn the spoken language before my shipment– you can probably tell how rusty I am. I don’t even know what ‘ain’t’ means! Regardless… I was quite lost in that town and the people seemed as if they did not want me there. One of them told me about this, er, bus, although I pictured it somewhat differently.”
She shook her head. “Do you think I’m a fool, kid?”
“Of course not! You’re quite perceptive, actually. I know it can be hard to understand what I am… but I’m willing to tell you.”
“Fine,” Margaret spoke with little kindness in her voice. “Tell me your little UFO loony story and I’ll drop you off at the first Newport bus stop I see.”
“Wonderful!” I stood up from my coarse rectangular seat and grabbed hold of the metallic bar that divided Margaret’s seat from mine. My legs felt better standing up, and the odd tingling stopped in my hands and toes.
“Hey! What do you think you’re–”
“First– to understand my story you must know what I am. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there’s a word for it in English, and I can’t produce the sounds of my kind with this human tongue. So we’ll make up a name! The Star Roamers, how about that? Anyway, my kind has lived for billions of Earth years. We had an unfair start, you could say. Because of this we’ve evolved to live almost eternally, with the exception of some diseases and the occasional space-transport accident. We’re a lot bigger than you humans, and our skin is green due to the greater levels of chloroform in our original planet’s atmosphere. We used to be tiny like you until we started space traveling. The Star Roamers are called such because we desire to touch every star in the universe– and, ideally, record every species that exists in our known cosmos. There have been debates on what to do with these species, but you needn’t worry. It is a topic to be settled hundreds of your years from now. For now, we only hope to research them and their DNA, to see how every planet has matured its lifeforms.”
There was a heavy silence in the bus as it rumbled down the rough terrain. I looked closely at Margaret, but she seemed intent to keep her gaze forward and say nothing. I nodded slowly. “I know it’s a lot to take in. But the existence of other lifeforms should be something to celebrate! We’ve found a couple others, too, but none quite as advanced as ours.”
“If you’re an alien,” she spoke slowly with a tone I was unfamiliar with. “How come you look like an average human girl?”
“Excellent question! Well, the Roamers have only known about your kind for around seventy of your ‘Earth’ years . We’ve made some mistakes along the way while trying to peacefully observe you, but that’s typical when finding a new species. You may have spotted our crafts in the sky, or seen a Beta Roamer collecting data on your terrain. We were quick to fix our mistakes once humans started inventing accessible digital cameras though, that’s for sure. Therefore, in order to continue our research on your planet, we captured a few of your race for a couple hours, and as you would say, ‘humanely’ collected their DNA and released them home. This DNA allowed us to copy and manipulate your genetic code and interweave it with ours. Only a select few Roamers were chosen to temporarily become humans by switching the human genes on and off with a simple signal. This would cause our bodies to become effective carbon copies of yours, we can even feel what you feel as we have the same brain! Incredible, isn’t it? At the time, it was seen as a great honor to help the cause. But to be honest, I don’t really like it.”
The rumbling of the bus carrying us down the road echoed in my brain as I felt the human emotions ambush me. It started in my stomach, the sensation feeling like twisting of wires. My legs and arms both shivered lightly. I couldn’t get them to stop. Didn’t the human body regulate its heat? Why was I shivering if I wasn’t even cold? The pain of utter uncertainty carved a path through my veins and clogged my thoughts. If I was a Star Roamer I would be strong. I wouldn’t worry about being alone because I’d have an eternity ahead of me. As a human, time moved so slow. Every emotion was prolonged and stretched across every body part where normally I’d only feel it in my head. It was almost too intense for me to handle, but the broken silence took me away from my momentary troubles.
Margaret grunted. The lights from Newport grew ever closer, shining and sparkling on the horizon like the morning sun. “I always seen them little green monsters on the television. Big, black beady eyes. Long fingers. Are those the ‘Beta Roamers’ you’re goin’ on about?”
“Well, those are a cartoonish version of them, but yes. There are billions of Beta Roamers and millions of Alpha Roamers. The Alphas are gigantic in height and mass– I believe, twenty feet in your terms? But the Betas are more like you. Like your depiction, my kind also has very large, black eyes that function as microscopes, and our mouths are tiny speakers that produce high-frequency sounds. But you don’t include our cheek holes at all!”
Margaret cringed at that. Her frown seemed to be worsening as my story went on. I hoped she believed me– all the other humans I had met were quick to call me crazy and slow to help. With every rise and fall of this solar system’s sun across Earth’s expansive sky I could feel myself being pulled further from home.
“So what’s in the city, kid?”
“A way out, I hope.”
“What, you can’t just call one a’ your alien buddies and have then teleport you back up?”
I smiled sadly. “Unfortunately not. If it were up to me, I would call Andromeda and have her meet me back in the town. But I’m afraid I was on bad terms with the rest of her crew, and, well…” My heart seemed to sink in my chest. That feeling– it was strange. I knew my heart was secured in my rib cage, but something felt horribly wrong, like it was trying to implode.
“My mother. Or, I guess, my sister, in your human terms? It’s awfully complicated to explain. But she’s the Alpha Roamer I’m connected to, and she watches out for me. Any Alpha worthy of respect in our society has at least one Beta. She’s also the captain of the ship I call my home. She’s a lot larger and stronger than me, in fact, she could probably pick me up with one hand. I love her, as you would say. But there’s this other Alpha who doesn’t take too kindly to me, Centaurus, or Andromeda’s second in command. You see, to Alphas, status is everything. While second in command is nothing to scoff at, he apparently doesn’t see the value of taking orders from Andromeda and has since been trying to ruin her. My Alpha is stronger and more cunning than him, but she has one soft spot: me. I have this feeling that… he might have left me here.”
Margaret’s gaze was softening. “So how are you going to be able to tell– you know, if you’re stranded here?”
I shook my head. “I’m going to have to find a phone. One of those high-powered tiny-screened phones. I should be able to attach this chip I brought to it, and if the ship is still in this vicinity I can get in contact with them and have them pick me up.”
“How are you planning on doing that? Do you have a thousand dollars?”
I dipped my finger into my pocket to graze over the three metallic coins at the bottom. “Well- no. I was hoping there’d be an excess and I could find it somewhere on the streets.”
Margaret shook her head. “You’re naive, aren’t ya?” She looked sadly out the front window, the city lights now perfectly in view. “When I was young I believed in aliens. I carried around my clunky polaroid everywhere I went in hopes of catching a UFO. I dreamed of getting whisked away and brought to other worlds, where I could be free of this one.” I wistfully watched her drive. “And now, here you are, goin’ on about all this mumbo-jumbo, probably as some kinda weird scheme to steal my phone. But, you know what?” The bus came to an abrupt stop. The sudden silence frightened me as all I could hear was the blasting of the miniature fans and the loud breathing noises the old man made in his sleep. “Here, take it. Go outside and try to contact your ship. Just… do you mind if I watch?” She opened some small compartment below the clock, and it dropped open with a loud clunk. Crumpled papers, loose sticks that smelled of ash, charging cables, and a tall can that featured a smiling woman with flowing hair filled the space to the brim. She dug around in the papers until she pulled out a black phone. With a touch of her finger, the device lit up and she input a password for me. When she turned to hand it to me, she seemed shocked at my face– and it was only then that I realized it felt wet. An overwhelming feeling of warmth flushed my skin. Somehow everything felt brighter, as if Margaret had lit a torch within me that fueled the fear I had before. I think this was hope. “No need to cry, hon.” She said with a gentle smile.
When she got up she opened the door. My heart beat uncomfortably, and I tried doing the breathing exercises I had learned to ease it but nothing worked. Outside the crickets hummed and drummed their legs loudly in a symphony of suspense. I pulled out the chip from my pants pocket and stood at the side of the road. Margaret was in the frame of the bus door, watching intently. I only now noticed the red lipstick she was wearing. She was quite lovely as her eyes lit up in fascination.
After removing the back of the phone I implanted the chip. The unreadable English letters became that of the Roamer language: curved, pretty lines that resembled sound frequencies. With shaking hands my fingers dialed the numbers I knew by heart. The phone did not ring like the Earth phones, but instead let out a high-pitched tone that hurt my human ears. It rang again and again. Then there was a voice. It was a strain to listen to, sounding like a mixture between clanging metal and a screeching bird. I noticed Margaret had covered her ears. However, I stuck it out, barely making out the message between my wincing. The voice was that of another Beta Roamer I knew, and I quickly spurted out my lines after being prompted.
“Tadpole, area 2-7-5-9. Return to spacecraft Destiny. Sociological test results. Affirmative.” After I spoke I knew the message had to go through the English translation unit, so it would take a moment. I glanced at Margaret with hopeful eyes, and I noticed her face was full of wonder. The old man from the bus had apparently woken up as well, and was now peering out the back window curiously. His mystified face made me smile.
“Sociological… what?” Margaret mumbled.
“Oh, I was sent here to interact with the humans, you know, fit in. I was only supposed to be here two weeks, but then it became a month. Still, I tried my best. I wasn’t too good at it as you saw, my cover was blown pretty fast… But it’s scary down here, I don’t have anyone telling me what to do or say.” I looked up once again at the stars in the sky, watching over me. “Although, when I think about it, it’s exhilarating, too. I came here so unsure of myself, but look at me, I made a friend! Back on my home, everyone has a place and knows their orders. But there’s this freedom to this place I can’t describe. Even when I was scared and alone, it so quickly turned to hope and trust with a few simple words. What you have here, Margaret… it’s very special.”
Margaret smiled in silent agreement. The screeching returned from the telephone speakers, telling me the coordinates of the meeting point. Shortly after it hung up. I strolled back over to Margaret as I inputted the coordinates on the map. She looked over my shoulder curiously.
“What’s all this mean? Is this your language?”
“Yep! Admittedly, I never learned to read the human language ‘English’, so thankfully I brought this chip to alter the phone’s origin. Oh…” I glanced over the map results. “The meetup location is six miles back. And it’s only in five minutes!” I clenched my fists as my uncontrolled human emotions caused water to drip from my eyes again. “This must have been Pinwheel’s doing.”
“Is that… Centaurus’ Beta?” She said attentively.
“Yes, that’s who I was speaking with. He knows I cannot walk that far on these human feet– and so fast, too!”
Suddenly, I heard a chuckle.
“Kid, I’ve been a bus driver for about thirty years now. I’ve helped lost girls and boys find their way against all odds, transported women in labor and men in their subsequent panic attacks, heck– I’ve even saved lives by pushing the speed limit. Best ticket I ever got. You get in this bus and hold onto somethin’, you hear me?” Margaret had this incredible look of determination on her face as she swiped her phone back and glanced over the coordinates. Her warm, comforting hand squeezed my shoulder. This comfort, however fleeting, was a familiar feeling.
“You’re amazing, Margaret,” I said softly. “You’re a human Andromeda.”
“That means a lot, kid.”
I got on the bus and took my seat behind her. The old man was upright and watching me with confused eyes. I gave him a wave, and he waved back. Margaret closed the doors firmly and over some sort of microphone told the two of us to strap in, cause we’re in for a bumpy ride. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I held firmly to the metal pole in front of me. She gripped the wheel and accelerated at a force I wasn’t expecting, turning us with a brutal swing. I found myself nearly off the seat and we had barely begun. We hurtled down the road, bumping and bouncing at every rock and crack. My face began to grow numb as I sat pressed against the seat. It rocked and rocked, and I wished more than ever that the bus could fly. A screech came from the phone.
“It just said three more miles!” I yelled over the humming of the engine. I wasn’t sure if Margaret heard me, but I noticed her face of concentration in the mirror above and trusted her. Soon, it was two miles– but the seconds were ticking away. We hadn’t slowed but it felt as if time was speeding up. One more mile.
I noticed we were in a dark area, one that Margaret must have been squinting to see ahead of her, especially at this speed. There were several trees around us until an open expanse of grassy fields surrounded the roads. They were hard to see, but I could almost make out the corn plants which covered the earth. In the distance there was a light brighter than the stars and the moon. It was shaped like a saucer, traditional in its design but advanced in the way it could choose to reflect light and radio waves. It shone toward us to signal me. As we grew closer, the humming grew louder, and I now knew that even if Centaurus and Pinwheel wanted to keep me here, they could not deny my approach now. Andromeda would have their heads if they pretended not to detect me. The thought of seeing my Alpha again made my heart race. I felt nervous, yet relaxed, and most of all warm in the depths of my heart. This must have been love– it was addicting. I almost wanted to stay a human so I could feel it over and over.
Gradually, the bus slowed to a stop. When the ride was over, my hair was nearly standing against gravity. The old man in the back looked like he was reeling, but he stuck his thumb up when I looked at him. I presumed that was a positive gesture. Margaret opened the door, and I led the way off the bus. She looked cautious, perhaps even terrified, as she peered up at the hovering object. I held her phone in my hand, my thumb reluctant to hit the signal button.
“Margaret, thank you so much for all you have done for me,” I looked at her with teary eyes. “Without you, I’d be lost and alone, somewhere far away from my home right now.”
“You’re welcome, kid. Thank you, too. This really has been something I won’t forget. Least not for a while.” She chuckled. “Get home safe now.”
I nodded happily. “One more thing,” I pointed the phone up at the spacecraft, attempting to get it all in frame. With a click the picture was taken. “Here! A picture, just like you always wanted when you were younger. It may not mean much to others, but at least you can remember me by it.” I opened the phone’s back and removed the chip. The language switched to English with a click. “Anyway, I guess this is…”
When I caught a glimpse of her tears had collected under her eyes. She went forward to give me the sacred human ‘hug’. Honored, I hugged back. I had an attachment to Margaret that I never thought I’d feel to a human. “I’ll be back sometime surely. I’d love to ride your bus again.”
With a sniffle, she said, “You better. Now go back to your home and tell ‘em how nice us humans are.”
I smiled. My finger pressed the call button, and the loud voice asked if I was ready to be teleported. I set the phone on the ground and replied, “Yes.”
Margaret stepped back, and the last I saw of her was a mystified face as my form began to change. My pale hands became a deep shade of green, and my vision grew significantly better without those old human eyes. I caught a glimpse of the man in the back who now had his mouth gaping as he pressed his face against the window. The ship pulled me to the sky, and my laugh rang through the misty night air.