“This bus could not be cooler. This is the coolest bus that has ever existed.”
Cain looked up from his book, a graphic novel about gods and a human-led rebellion against them, and caught a whiff of the morbidly obese gentleman two seats ahead, who had spent half the trip thus far eating bag after bag of fast food and releasing zeppelin-loads of gas into the enclosed space. It was as if this blimp of a man was trying to spread himself further and occupy even more of the bus with his odor; wanted to reach out and touch the expanses his ample flesh couldn’t quite attain. As if the microscopic particles he released into the air, interpreted by his fellow passengers’ noses as an acrid, junk-yard stench, were tiny flags planted into the frenetically colorful, shabby cloth seats in which they all sat.
The man’s stink said, this is my bus. Cain wasn’t certain he wanted to challenge that claim.
I said, “I think there are ways in which it could be more cool.”
Rainer sat across the aisle, hunched against the window, soaking up the chill from the pane of shatter-resistant glass that separated him from the moon-lit hills and smattering of rural housing that blazed by, just off the highway. His frame was wiry and cloaked in shadows, and appeared almost spider-like as he leapt up and crossed the space between us, wriggling into the chair next to mine; so close that it shared an armrest.
Rainer pulled his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, as if squeezing his whole body tight, trying to keep the excitement from exploding outward to decorate the windows with enthusiastic-Indian-geek-manchild innards.
“You’ve lost perspective, Cain.”
“You’re a geek-manchild.”
“You’re jealous of my relationship with the universe.”
“I can’t even begin to consider thinking about what you mean by that.”
“You’ve lost your sense of wonder. Of awe.” Rainer leaned in close to me and gazed off into the distance, which at the moment ended about eight feet away, marked by our ghostly reflections in the windows lining the opposite side of the bus. “I look at this space — this shuttle, blasting toward greatness — and see a grand adventure! And you’re sitting here moping. Trying to cover it up by reading Pyramid; which you somehow managed not to read until now; which is in itself extra offensive to a reasonable person’s sensibilities. But you’re moping, despite having gone out into the world. You experienced something…”
“Scary.” The world fell out of my mouth, unsummoned. “It was kind of scary, actually. The voices in my head are back. And I was put on some serious drugs as a kid because of these voices.”
“But you’re not a kid now. They can’t take away your recess or put you on mind-numbing pills. There is no school. No drugs. Except for, you know, the kind you might want to take. Recreationally.”
I shook my head, closing the book and looking at Rainer. “You weren’t there. These voices…I didn’t tell my parents about them before I left.”
“No. I didn’t tell them they were back, because I was afraid they’d…I don’t know. Worry. Try and stop me. Convince me that…”
“Here we go.”
“This is where you outline your heroes’ tale to me. Where you come clean.”
“Yeah. You’re totally holding back, man, I can tell.”
“What? About what?”
Streetlights from a small town flashing by outside pulsed in Rainer’s eyes as he stared at me through the mostly darkness. “About the voices.”
“I told you about the voices.”
“You didn’t tell me everything. I can tell, Cain. And remember, I was there when you were a kid. When everything was happening the first time.”
He huffed. “I don’t know why you’re being so weird about it. I know that the voices help you or something. I remember baseball.”
Cain pulled up short, a retort on his lips, but uncertainty kept him from muttering another denial. He chose his words carefully.
“You…you remember something from then. About the…voices. From before the meds.”
“Yeah, dude, it was kind of hard to miss. You went from last-kid-picked on the baseball team, to superstar. Overnight. MVP every game. Everyone remembers that. It’s just that most people don’t know about the voices, and most people don’t have my extraordinary ability to put two and two together.”
“You think the voices…”
“Math, Cain. It’s just math. You don’t have to go all Clark Kent on me and assume I can’t take the truth. Can’t see past your glasses-disguise. The voices helped you learn baseball, right?”
Cain squinted, thinking hard, trying to penetrate the fuzz that had grown like kudzu over his childhood, especially the times before the medication. But after Rainer mentioned it, Cain recalled that yes, there were voices then. There was a friendly voice he could talk to; one that helped him become better, faster. A voice he called…
“The voice that taught…teaches…me things. It’s called Instinct.” I thought about what he’d said. “But how the hell did you deduce something like that? Why couldn’t I have just gotten good at baseball? I can be good at things without it being the result of some kind of condition. I could be some kind of whiz kid, for all you know.”
“Oh come on, Cain. The writing was on the wall. The voices and a sudden talent where none existed before? And not just one talent, but also the sudden jump in grades, the increased social abilities, and of course the infamous…”
There it was. “Tetris.”
“Yes. The infamous Tetris upset. Which shall go down in infamy.”
I sighed. “You decided I must have some kind of voice-induced super power because I beat your high score at Tetris at the arcade.”
“It would have to have been an utterly impossible fluke, otherwise.”
“Do you know how much time it takes to develop one’s hand-eye coordination to the point where you can spin tetrominoes with that kind of flourish and accuracy and…”
“Yes! It’s unbelievable that you would gain the nimbleness of wrist necessary to…”
“No. This is unbelievable. Your obsession with that stupid game led you to come up with thisexplanation as the most likely culprit.”
“Is it really that unbelievable? You’ve known me for how long?”
I sniffed a laugh. “No, I guess it’s not so unbelievable, now that you mention it.”
“So all cards on the table? Now that we’ve acknowledged how Sherlockian and amazing my deduction skills are?”
“Yes. Okay. Fine.” It was a relief, actually. I had planned to tell Rainer everything — about Dr. Steinberg, about Strauss and Plato, and my suspicions about Mickey and his potential involvement with The Commons — but I couldn’t quite figure out how to breach the subject.
“That I’m ridiculously over-qualified as a friend.”
“You’re a good guy, Rainer.”
“Yes. Yes I am.” Rainer unfolded his legs and sat like a normal human being, laying back against the seat and crowding our shared armrest with his elbow. “So spill. Tell it all. From when you left the warehouse.”
An hour and numerous expletive-laced comments later, Rainer had heard the whole torrid tale. About being pulled into Strauss’ crew after getting him the right coffee. About Instinct reemerging and teaching me to excel at the skills I needed, as I needed them. About Strauss and Dr. Steinberg’s savant-assertions as to how I did what I did. About the presumed heist in the shipping container film set.
When I finished, laying out last my suspicions about The Commons and concerns over their activities, Rainer said, “Well, I think the next step is clear.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
“We have to infiltrate both groups, identify their relative strengths and weaknesses, and reshape them into a rough-and-tumble supergroup.”
Cain allowed the deep hum of the bus to fill a few seconds of conversational dead space, hoping his friend would give some indication that he was joking, but knowing he was waiting in vain.
“I get where you’re coming from, Rainer, I do. But…you realize this is real life, right? This isn’t a comic book.”
“Oh, I’m aware.”
“So you’re also aware that we don’t actually have any connections to The Commons, if that is indeed who was behind the faux-heist on the Pyramid film set, and at the doc’s lab.”
“So then, of course, you’re also aware we don’t have any connections to the doctor, either. I have a connection, and it’s only because I’m keeping my job with Strauss, and have agreed to let Steinberg study my brain. Because he thinks I’m some kind of savant.”
“And even that tenuous connection could disappear, if he finds out I’m not one; not the kind of person he’s spent his life studying, the kind he thinks holds the potential to breed super-humans in some kind of strange, not-quite-Nazi-but-still-quite-disconcerting way.”
“Old news, Cain.”
“Okay. You know all that. But you still think we need to infiltrate things, build super-groups…that kind of thing.”
“Cain, dude, I think we’ve just escaped from the backend of nowhere, and the place we’re headed is full of intrigue and cyborg cops and secret labs belonging to mad doctors. I, for one, don’t plan on sitting around, merely wondering what might happen next.” He patted me on the shoulder before crawling back over to his seat across the aisle.
Curling back up against the window and pulling his jacket over himself like a blanket, Rainer said, “Plus, we’re both single and nearly broke. What else are you planning to do with your time?”