"Good morning," said the bus driver. The man in the denim sherpa jacket stepped onto the platform, dropped two-ten into the farebox for a Day Pass, and moved down the aisle. As he went, he took note of this morning's particular sampling of riders: a trio of Hispanic women towards the front, laundry baskets in hand, chattering cheerfully in Spanish; behind them, on the driver's side, a younger woman, hair still damp and stringy from the shower, a fine layer of mascara doing its best to draw attention away from the swollen circles under her eyes as she gazed sullenly out the window; several seats down, a beefy, mustached Caucasian man with his face buried in The Orange County Register as he picked at some sort of scab wound on his cheek; behind him, two university students conversing in Japanese as they pointed out items in a battered copy of Import Tuner . There were others as well, but most noticeable was a pair of men sitting at the rear of the bus. Their discussion carried across the entire compartment (actually, it was the one wearing the patched Raiders jersey who was doing most of the talking; his companion, a prematurely gray forty-something in white Polo and slacks, merely nodded agreeably and uttered a word or two every now and then) and seemed to have something to do with politics. Denim seated himself beside the mismatched duo and smiled warmly. "Hello there," greeted Slacks, evidently in search of an opportunity to relax his jaded attention span. "Sure is one heck of a morning--chilly enough to get your teeth chattering, eh?" Jersey, having been caught in mid-sentence, nodded politely enough, adjusted his Raiders jacket, and said, "Cold enough for a nice flu outbreak, no less." Slacks chuckled and gestured at his companion. "We were just having a little discussion about this and that." "It's the whole population-control thing," Jersey continued. "They'd love it if we all dropped dead tomorrow. All of us in the projects and the ghettos and the cramped sardine-can apartment complexes where they'd just as easily have built golf courses and country clubs for themselves. You see, none of us matter--they want to whittle us down so that the planet's population can be managed more easily." "You don't say," murmured Slacks amusedly. "It's been going on for centuries. A controlled test here or there, now and then, to see how the general public, how the hospitals and doctors and nurses react. HIV, AIDS, polio, SARS, West Nile--you think it's just global warming that's making it easier for us folks in the northern hemisphere to contract all this garbage?" "Well--" "You bet it isn't!" Jersey wagged his finger at Denim (who hadn't spoken at all, though his mere presence seemed to have given him automatic membership in the discussion). "Every good strategy needs testing before deployment. These biological weapons of mass destruction, they need tweaking so that they can get the job done without spoiling what's left over. Like with the neutron bomb, 'Clean Killing,' and so forth. Even that wasn't good enough because it was too obvious--Americans don't like war, though they've certainly grown accustomed to the benefits of winning. The wars of the future will be fought in laboratories and walk-in clinics." Slacks shifted in his seat, crossing one leg over the other. "Come now. The government isn't all lies and secrecy." "Of course it is! That's exactly what they're all about!" "And who are they , exactly?" "The men at the top, the ones in control--pharmaceutical companies, stockholders, Skull and Bones initiates; the corporate elite who buy our congressmen and presidents for us. The global government." "Now, now," chuckled Slacks. "That's a little over the top, don't you think?" Jersey's nostrils flared. "Have you ever met a politician?" "Well, no, can't say that I have--" "Exactly my point! We only think we know who we elect into office, but it's only a small smattering of people they select to get the 15% of the votes required for the public debates, and then once one of them's in office, it's business as usual, keeping you and me in the dark, keeping us at our menial jobs so that we can keep paying our bills, our taxes, and when we're not working for them, we're sitting drunk in front of the television and allowing ourselves to be spoon-fed the latest political and societal propaganda." Slacks shook his head, paid an amused glance at Denim. "I think you're overreacting. We vote these people into office, don't we? People , like you and I, who have just as many problems as we do." "Yeah--problems they create." "And why would anyone want to make their day job harder, exactly?" Jersey nodded and closed the gap between himself and Slacks. "Let's go back to the SARS example. Twenty years ago there was the first outbreak, but it was a flop because not enough people overreacted, not enough people demanded the vaccinations--it didn't spread far enough. The general populace's health was too good, you see." "Oh?" "They blamed it on the wide availability of vitamins and fortified foods. Everybody was taking care of themselves, and so they were less susceptible to the latest outbreaks. Similar flus seasons followed, and each time there was a shortage of this, a contaminated shipment of that--and most folks lost the blood lust for vaccinations altogether. So you know what they did, what they'd been trying to do ever since all our precious little modern societies inked the CODEX deals in the 1960s?" Slacks shrugged. "What's that?" "They wanted to have certain laws passed that controlled the production of vitamin supplements for all countries with UN membership. You'd have to have a doctor's prescription for something as simple as vitamin C--so all of us Joe Schmoes without medical insurance would have to pay through our asses if we wanted to see a doctor about possibly taking supplements. 'It'll never happen,' they all said--but whammo! Dupe a major vitamin distributor or two with a class-action lawsuit, cite a couple well-to-do school kids overdosing on herbal supplements, and you have a whole new War On Drugs campaign fronting the Safer Supplements Act of '07. Oh, there might still be some basic placebos in the drug stores, but they're mostly cellulose, so watered down as to be utterly useless--for our children's safety, of course. "Most of us just say 'screw it' and stop taking supplements altogether--which isn't bad in and of itself, but each time we hit the latest and greatest flu season, we have to take on a new strain of bugs without the benefit of a fortified immune system. "And that's how it goes: You take out a portion of the elderly one year, a portion of the young children the next, and on down the road. Eventually all you have left are the strongest adults, the soldier ants--the workers who keep Corporate America in business by paving roads for the elite, by building their offices for them and then going the extra mile, even, by doing their paperwork, managing their databases. "Whittling our lives away, that's what we're doing--until we're too old to be of any use; then it's the unfortunate mosquito bite, a sip from the tap on the wrong day, a tainted package of beef, and poof!--one less population statistic to have to tally." "That's a shame," said Slacks (once it was obvious Jersey was allowing for a brief intermission). "I remember the vitamin C tablets my mom used to give me. They were cherry-flavored--ten dollars a bottle, from the health food store." "It's heresy!" Jersey's hands convulsed upwards. "You know what I saw at the grocery store the other day? This huge poster of a gigantic red bell pepper, fresher, juicier, and shinier-looking than anything you've ever seen. The caption read, 'So what if fruits and vegetable are losing half their vitamins--who cares?' Now that's a blatant example of what's wrong with America. It's all about appearances. Any manner of maladies could be festering under the surface, but as long as if everything looks good, then it's good enough." He coughed, reached into his pocket and withdrew a small bag of cough drops. "It's a damned shame, because I pass the coffee shop on the way home every evening, and I see these gorgeous young women--petite beauties, probably in college--with their tight little bottoms, sculpted waists, perfectly-shaped breasts, skin like smooth porcelain...each and every one of them has a latte in one hand, cigarette in the other, and this sullen, devastated look on their face--as if being young and divinely beautiful is a curse. "So they all hang out gulping down enough caffeine to turn their livers into meatloaf; that, as well as the cigarettes and Ritalin, will make them fine contributors to the Pharmaceutical Fund when they're in their thirties and they need six types of medications to keep their organs from grinding to a halt." Slacks nodded in agreement as the bus abruptly slowed. They passed a car accident, and everyone on Slacks' side turned around in their seats to peer out the window just as the bloodied driver was excavated from the ruins of his Lexus. "This'll be on the evening news," Jersey said, shaking his head. He popped a cough drop into his mouth. "Sponsored by the latest commercial from Progressive Auto Insurance." The accident past, Slacks turned in his seat and faced Jersey again, while Denim quietly, patiently observed from behind heavy eyelids. "Tragic...simply tragic. They say it's safer to fly--then again, I don't take a jet to and from work every day." "Such is life." Jersey leaned back and closed his eyes. "I had a dream once, where I was at this fancy restaurant--real hoity-toity, people dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns and all. How I got invited, I have no idea. Maybe I was the friend of an ambassador or some prime minister; maybe my wife was President. Anyhow, we were all there eating off golden plates and drinking from crystal goblets, and the toastmaster held up his glass. He started talking about the future, how humankind was going to flourish once again, so long as we didn't repeat the mistakes of our past. Then he went over to a window and threw open the curtains, and I could see we were up high somewhere, looking down into the valley. Orange County, Anaheim, L.A.--it was all laid to waste beneath us. "'500 million, worldwide', the toastmaster told us. That was how many were left after whatever catastrophe leveled the playing field. He mentioned how, in the weeks, months, and years to come, we would rebuild our society, draw forth a new civilization from the ashes." Jersey put his hand to his head. "He said, 'We will send a fleet of farmers and carpenters into all the great valleys, and we will transform the devastation into a prosperous utopia'. And everyone cheered, but I didn't--I could feel the shame hanging over us like a fog. We knew how we'd gotten there, how we'd allowed a third World War, how we'd allowed the rainy-day retroviruses to escape into the wild, how we made sure there was only enough vaccine for those on the list. In this new world we were starting fresh, and we needed a clean slate. There was no room for error, no room for the teenage misfit shooting up heroine in his mother's 1-bedroom apartment, no need for the sixty-five-year-old retiree who picked up tin cans on Saturday mornings. The Earth was running out of room--so we made room." He opened his eyes, panned a perilous gaze between Slacks and Denim. "500 million. Can you believe it? That was the only time I ever got sick to my stomach from a dream." "Thank goodness it was only a dream, then," said Slacks. Jersey blanched. "You're not listening . It starts with the little things: a 'harmless' dream every now and then, a feeling of knowing better--a treaty signed here, an unsavory bit of legislation passed there. Before you know it, the future catches up with you." Pulling the stop-cord, Slacks smiled and stood, holding onto the safety rail for support. "Well, my friend, looks like this meeting of the Conspiracy Clique has come to an end. See you at five-thirty?" Jersey grunted something feral and nodded as he buried his face in a bus schedule. Momentarily, when the bus reached its stop, Denim stood as well and moved towards the door. He made sure to grasp each and every safety rung along the way, linking his gloved hands with the leather, kneading it in an efficient, subtle manner. He followed Slacks down the platform, out onto the sidewalk, where the downtown Anaheim cafes and office buildings rose all around. The bus pulled away, scoured them both in a cloud of hot steam and exhaust. "Say," he asked, waving at Slacks. "You got the time?" Slacks looked at his wristwatch. "Seven forty-three." "Thanks." A pause, followed by a low chuckle. "Back on the bus...that was a pretty intense conversation, eh?" "Sometimes," said Slacks, "I think the only plague America is suffering from is paranoia." Both men had a chuckle. Slacks reached into his pocket for a cigarette; Denim reached into his own for the moistened sponge-- "A few too many science fiction books, if you know what I mean." --ran his gloved fingers over the honeycombed surface, just as he'd done before exiting the bus-- "Especially considering most of us were raised by the television. Can't blame people like Av for taking the daily headlines a little too seriously." --and waited for the right moment. "But I'm not one to judge. My neighbors are my neighbors. I don't mind listening." Slacks lit his cigarette, took a deep, long drag, and then stepped forward, holding out his free hand. "Well, I've got to get to the office, you know?" Denim nodded and, with the friendliest of smiles, withdrew his hand from his pocket, offered it to Slacks. The handshake lasted not two seconds--but it was enough. "Take care." "Yes, take care," Slacks said. They parted ways--Slacks to whatever nine-to-five job he had waiting for him down the way, Denim to the next bus stop, the next conversation. Along the way, he removed his gloves and dumped them, contaminated as they were, into a public wastebasket. Then he drew on a fresh pair from his satchel. He checked his schedule. If he hustled, he would make the eight o'clock to Huntington Beach. Jogging briskly to the nearest stop, he arrived just as the bus pulled up. He helped an elderly lady aboard and, flashing his Day Pass, looked for a seat.
x x xGet your flu shot this year? If not, this story might be a bit more frightening. Mr. Thompson—aka Jesse Gordon—has spun a cautionary tale for bus riders everywhere. Your comments to our BBS, please. -GM