Stratford Terminal

I woke up inside Stratford terminal. Somewhere at the front of the bus the driver was explaining the transfer. I pulled myself upright. Stratford terminal is dismal. Lights suspended from steel trusses two stories up become starry pinpricks as they make their way through the accumulated smog of the bus exhaust, cigarettes and sleep-sweat that comprises the air of the place. Somewhere, I'm sure, in some office there is a lighting chart that shows Stratford Terminal, on it are placed perfect little circles with larger circles around them, they show conclusively that Stratford Terminal is an airy and wonderful place for passengers of Lupis' Lines to spend their stopovers. I really think they should post that chart somewhere in the station. Laughter might brighten up the place.

No-one was taking their stuff with them. The all shuffled past my seat empty handed, their movements showing the strain of inactivity during the long trip from London. I waited until the bulk of them were gone, they were the infrequents, people who didn't understand about travel. They were probably going up to visit family or try for one of the jobs in the city, they had no idea what happened on the busses during stopovers. There were maybe fifteen of us who tugged down our packs from the overhead, trooping off the bus resigned to waiting for a few hours in the gloom.

Most of the infrequents were sitting on the benches, waiting for the call to get back on the bus. In a half hour they would start pestering the driver to let them back on the bus so they could get their shows or books or games before they forgot where they were in the plot. I took a seat on my pack near one of the female regulars. She glanced at me, recognised me and went back to sleep.

One lady had two children with her, a little baby who was choking in the air, and a girl that kept running around the station. Luckily Stratford's quiet on the weekends, there's only four busses, and only the big run from London makes a stop-over. Not that I need quiet to sleep, it's just that crowds mean you have to keep an eye out. I leaned back against the pillar. I'll never figure out why they put those big carved pillars in the middle of a warehouse like Stratford. Seems strange to see a big gothic tree holding up an I beam, a little off if you know what I mean. I let myself fall into sleep, trying to remember the last dream, the last image of that world I'd seen.

I couldn't lose myself. The little girl was squealing about something she was seeing outside the window. I opened my eyes again. I don't suppose she was filthy, but in that air she seemed like such a grimy creature, it seemed wrong that she should be able to take joy from a world wrapped in smog and soot, from a cavern where people squatted next to dragons taking them to places they'd rather not be. I shut her out. I concentrated on the dream of where I might be. Somehow I forgot her and remembered the dream.

The scum on my teeth told me I'd slept too long. The driver was gone, most of the irregulars were slumped on the benches asleep. The female regular was still there, as was the mother, so I hadn't missed the bus, it was probably some sort of breakdown. The child was awake. She was leaning on the window staring out at whatever it was she'd discovered in this hole. Somehow I thought about telling her to go to sleep. What did I care? I watched her. She'd managed to scrape a bit of the window clear of the grime. She had her nose a few inches from this nested portal, every few seconds she would shift position. She wasn't excited any more, her legs were the only part of her that still believed they might escape into that world beyond the window, the rest of her knew it was impossible.

She left the window, going back to the knot of infrequents huddling close together. She checked on her mother and then wandered over near me. She squatted down in front of me, turned a little to the side. After a few minutes of staring she crept closer to the female. I don't think she knew I was awake. She made it right up to her. It was a stupid thing to do. The slap woke up most of the others. At least, she was smart enough not to start crying. I watched her for a few minutes until I realised the mother had gone back to sleep.

I'm generally prepared. I dug my old medic's pack out of the pack and threw a cold pack at the lump on the floor. She didn't move to pick it up. I went back to sleep.

An argument is a lousy way to wake up, especially after a night sleeping on top of your pack. The driver was back again, and one of the infrequents was yelling at him. From the driver's mumbled retorts I decided that someone had tried to run away during the first few hours of the stopover. The force had finally given up on them, so we were free to go, at least, as soon as the moron let the driver get into the bus. I picked up my pack and made my way to the argument.

Moron was a business type, somewhere between a banker and a car salesman, he was complaining about service-quality or some other jargon. "We can go now, right gov, soon as you're in the seat?" I've got a loud voice, so it kinda broke in, didn't really matter though, the driver woulda heard a mouse squeak to get the suit out of his face.

"S'right. Be there in a jiff." He manoeuvred past the suit, keyed the lock, and stepped past so he was standing behind the suit, ushering the line into the bus. The suit tried a withering glance. I threw a number-three-special smirk back and stepped around him into the line.

I got a seat near the front. Not normal for me, but normally I haven't just done a favour for the driver. The mother was sitting behind and over from me. The kid was bouncing around opposite me. About half her face was covered in the bruise, but even that half was still smiling and flashing at the garbage that surrounded her.

The driver came on a few seconds later. He smiled at me. It looked good. If they're in the mood a driver can give you the food they get for the trips. Normally they just hoarded it, selling it on shade streets, but if you got on their good side you could get a free meal or two. He pulled the bus out of the station. Sunlight streamed in the windows. I closed my eyes to let them adjust. The girl started oohing and aahing across from me. I opened my eyes to look at her. She was standing on the seat with her face pressed against the glass. She sat awkwardly as the driver pulled onto the onramp. Trying to pull herself up against the acceleration, she rotated to follow whatever it was finally she was staring past me. I suppose I should have anticipated it, but I mean, she should have learned. She was on top of me in a few seconds, staring out my window.

"Isn't it beautiful?" I suppose she was whispering it to me. I turned my head.

Stratford is built at the bottom of the Avon canyon. The river was dammed to form the lagoon. Lagoon wasn't useful for anything, the birds that covered it had turned the bottom to muck. Cleaners still cleared the beaches, but that was all. She was staring at a lagoon.

"What's that?" She pointed. I don't know why, I looked. It was just a Central.

"Central." Normally I don't do things like that.

"Oh." She went back to staring at the lagoon. I kept looking at the Central. The dome was red plastic, they all were, the rest was whatever colour they had extra of, but the domes were always red, enraged onions against a blue sky, or here, against a brown-grey cliff. The bus hit the upramp. She stayed on my lap to watch the lagoon fade. "I'm Crystal." I stared at the bruised pixie on my lap until I decided I didn't want to figure her out.

"Oh." I turned to look out the window. Crystal climbed off me. The bus left the Avon crevice and joined the express lanes. Outside, the monotony of the fields took over. I let myself dissipate. My dreams were troubled though, lakes of blue plastic poured in on me from green plastic eyes crying over crumbling red plastic onions.

I woke up with a package of beer nuts on the seat next to me. I picked it up quietly. Casually sliding the driver a smile of thanks. He didn't smile back. I didn't expect him to, they don't smile much. I slid the bag into my pack. It was night outside. Crystal was curled up across the aisle, her jacket blanketing her against the air conditioning.

She looked like she'd come right from a farm. The clothing looked like the type they wore, bought at a store too small to carry a decent selection, where you took what fitted, not what you liked. Her hair was a few seasons out of date, not a problem for a kid, but it reflected badly on the mother. I shifted so I could see the mother. She was a heavy woman, but through some irony, her face was pinched rather than open. Somehow I couldn't see Crystal turning into this woman, I couldn't imagine a creature that spent the night staring at a lagoon in the moonlight would someday sleep while her child lay hurt on the ground.

I pulled myself away. It was none of my business, and I had work to do before I reached the city. I slid the goggles out and set up the keyboard. There are few companies that will give their outriders satellite time. Even l'Od doesn't give us much, just enough to squeeze through a currency package. I downloaded Lisa's work and about eighteen briefs on the relateds. Lisa'd pretty-much finished the first eight sequences on the Johnson deal since I signed them Friday evening at the party.

Lisa was good, not particularly original, but she could churn out enough that when you cut out the fat, about ninety-five percent of it, normally, the thing starts to jump. I'm good to, I just don't do a whole lot of work, I spend my time pushing the dreams then popping them onto the stacks. Lisa and I make a good team, we don't get many of the big jobs, but who would want them. Embodying the lies the corps want is mind warping in the extreme, much easier to do little-guy's self images. Johnson was starting at dusk in the yard of a cottage in the corner of some-grand-estate-or-other, one of Lisa's stock openings, the lighting is most dramatic, the modesty is there, as technically you "live" in the little cottage, but you have all the "benefits" of being the owner of the estate. I killed the sequence wholesale and began typing. A lot of makers won't work in text, they start in with the actual models, telling it where everything's supposed to be as they go. I just tell the computer what I care about then critique its interpretation and tweak it around.

"Johnson, new intro, rundown cottage in the woods, no lane, but two standing stones, no visible gating, he's got a horse in the shack around back. It's a strong Arabian, charcoal with black dapples, it's been with him a long time and acts as though it's an extension of him . . ." I kept typing until I'd given him a home, townhall, office, and night-club, then checked the relateds. One of them was a text job from Japan. The synopsis wasn't fantastically interesting, but I put in a request for a construction. Most of the rest was stuff I just wanted to leave until I got back to the office. I don't like trying to work outside my field unless I'm centred. I tend to get lost in the fields and wind up spending hours working on nuclear physics instead of getting my work done.

I checked the personals, there were a few little notes from Lisa, mostly meaningless flirtation. I don't flirt over a satellite link. Near the bottom was the message from Jinsenj. I don't know why I opened it, but I did. She didn't say much. That hurt. We'd been over for a month, not even a fit, just a how-are-you, what-are-you-up-to thing with her number and address. I knew them, of course, it was just her way of opening again. I hate females. I sent the file twisting into the night with a wave and uploaded the currency. I pulled off the glasses.

Crystal was perched on the armrest next to me. "You're a maker, aren't you?" She acted like makers weren't a dime-a-dozen, maybe they weren't in the backwaters.

"Where're you from, Crystal?"

"Paris. Well, at least, that was where mum was from, but I lived with grandma and grandpa." She seemed to be deciding something, apparently it was whether she had to keep answering my question. The answer was, 'no' apparently. "Gina was a maker, at least, she was an almost maker, she used to make up songs for us when we were milking. Do you make songs?"

"Places." I'd never set a note to scale, Lisa took care of the sound for our collaborations, and before her all my work had been "glacially silent" to quote the reviews. I played that up on a few occasions, made demos of iceberg environments gating through to under-the-pole fantasies. Cheap, but it paid the rent for a few months back when I needed food.

Crystal turned her head back upright. "I'm going to be a maker too." That's why I don't like talking to kids, I don't like to tell them that they'll never make it, but I don't want to lie to them either.

"What are you going to make?"

"Dreams. The ones people care about." I couldn't help remembering the first time I'd said something like that to another person. I still see him sometimes, feel the derisive waves slapping my face in time to his laughter.

I stared at her. She wasn't old enough to have the kind of dreams that made the world sit up and take notice, hell, I wasn't old enough. Maybe no-one was. I'd started out trying to make them care, then I'd had to face the fact that no-one would pay me for making them care. They wanted little worlds set up where they wouldn't have to care for a few hours, where they wouldn't have to think or understand anything, they just didn't want to care. "It's a tough market, kid." I reached out to ruffle her hair.

She stopped my arm, "Don't." She slid off the armrest and retreated to her side of the aisle. Without so much as a glance she curled up and went to sleep. I stared at her. She was still young enough to care. I stowed the gear and forced myself back to sleep.

I found myself on the landing. When I was twenty-five and starving I killed my dreams. I'd been on my own for a few years, living off the dreams moulded in silicon, the kind of dreams Crystal wanted to create. Pure sub-conscious, raving, ravaging, loving and singing. When I think back to it seems as though I wasn't doing any editing, it was just flowing from my mind into the void, of course, back then I was working as hard as I could to edit it, I just had a different idea of what I was trying to do. I'd tried to perfectly reflect my mind, now I knew that there was no point in it. No-one wanted to know who you were, no-one wanted to share the things you cared about. They wanted something that would reassure them that other people cared about what they cared about, that they were, in fact, the centre and purpose of the universe.

It wasn't hard to kill them. I just ripped them apart and used their images. No stock broker working in a tiny cubicle all day, staring at dots of currency all day wants to be faced in the evening with a piece that tells him he isn't helping the world or producing anything we would want. So I take the sequences where an artist pulls power from the land around him and feed it into the dot-world, I let him think his job is the pivot of the universe for a few minutes, and it makes him feel good, it makes the world believe in itself, even though I don't.

The landing is circular, dirt, with grass around it. As I step down onto it a wind picks up. I know this place, I've been here before, years before, before the dreams died. The path leading from below is my dreams until the crossroad, I think. It's easy when you've been through something to guess what the meanings are. I think the paths were dreams. On the left of that path is the path I've stepped down from. To the right is the path I took. The path that continues the line is the only one remaining. I try to step onto it, but I find that I've been tied to the other paths with a cord that disappears into my pack. I take the pack down. Inside the cord passes through a loaf of bread. I realise that I'm hungry. I take the loaf out and start to eat it. I finish the loaf, but now the cord is anchored in my stomach and I cannot move.

The cord tightens and begins pulling me back onto the old paths. I fall, trying to scramble onto the middle path, but the cord pulls me. I make it to the middle path, crawling along it to keep up with the cord. Soon, however, it is pulling me sideways. As I try to hold the path I can feel the mana leaving my stomach. I clamp down on the cord with my teeth. I fall from the path and plunge into the surrounding darkness.

Crystal's mother was gone. She pushed into the line, leaving Crystal to fend for herself. She was sitting sideways on the seat staring at me. I stared right back at her. I was ready to go as soon as the line died.

She was up before me, "You're Adolf Peterson, aren't you?" Strange look, almost as though it was an accusation. She didn't wait for my answer. I stood up, pulling the pack on. Crystal jumped off the bus to what sounded like a scolding from her mother. I started up the aisle. Crystal was gone by the time I reached the stairs. Remembering to thank the driver for the nuts I headed to the concessions. The stations in the cities are real stations, they're well lighted and they blow the exhaust out as fast as the busses produce it. What's more, they've got lounges where you can buy indecent food for a song. I didn't bother with it today, my stomach was unsettled. I headed through to the metro. Crystal had faded away by the time the bus pulled away from the station.

Please link, don't copy.
This work is Copyright (c) Mike Fletcher 1995