The buses are running ragged. She feels it in the heat that rises from the floor of her aging Scania and smothers her legs, in the stuttering whine of its engine as it struggles over the pitted surface of the Causeway. The refugees are grimly quiet, white-knuckled on the handgrips and railings. The crying has petered out to the occasional sniffle of a child’s still-running nose.
The first thing she does once they hit the disembarkation terminal is to run for a washroom break, threading between the murmuring, empty-eyed refugees weighed down by possessions and grime and shell-shock. Then a cup of kopi, tasteless and scalding hot, while the Scania’s engine cooled in a series of pinging noises. A twenty minute break, and then they’d be back, across the closed border and into the beseiged East. Her shift doesn’t end until eight hours later.
In the crush of bodies filling the terminal she nearly knocked over one of the new drivers-John? Jacob? She can’t remember all their names. In the past weeks there had been a boom of drivers turning up with buses in tow. Many were kids, not even old enough to make the legal driving age, back when those things still mattered. Some of them showed up just days after their ride had came to them, before they had even properly bonded with the passenger vehicles.
Funny. Back in the day riders had mostly had fast flashy rides, million-dollar cars they otherwise would never have dreamt of owning. These days, it was all about the buses, the heavy vehicles, the big movers. And armoured vehicles. There were rumours, she heard, of a girl who had bonded with a Soviet-era T-34. A Russian tank? Why not, she had thought, when she heard. Why not? Yesterday she had seen the remains of a HDB block of flats in southern Mountbatten, a charred gutted wreck with a few fragments of glass clinging to twisted windowframes. An old schoolfriend had lived there once, she thought, or maybe she was remembering wrongly. She wondered if the interim Town Council had managed to evacuate the block before it was shelled.
The worst part, she thinks, is having to close the doors, having to drive away with the lucky last few on the steps plastered against the doors, while those left behind run after her, slapping on the sides of the bus, screaming. Her Scania knows not to run over the ones who jump in front, trying to stop it from leaving, but she still sees their desperate, pleading faces when she closes her eyes at night. Once a mother pushed her young son into the last gap just as the doors were closing, and the boy screamed for her all the way back to the terminal until he had no tears left, just empty, hoarse sobbing. One of the terminal staff took him to the shelter; she didn’t know what happened to him after that.
Her Scania has a war-wound down its side, a big grey gouge left by the angry paw of a roadside mine. It worries her deeply because spirit-rides are supposed to be immune to that. It’s the only way they can get in and out of the blockade, and across the closed border to Malaysia, through metres’ worth of solid concrete walls. But having to fend off the constant attacks have been wearing them thin. She knows the qi holding these things together is not inexhaustible, and she doesn’t know what will happen when that runs out. Her baby is becoming mortal, just like the rest of them.
She drains the last of the flat, torrid coffee and swallows away the bitter aftertaste. Time’s up. She gets in, turns the ignition key, and prepares to head back into the hell she once called home.