We met Molly at the Bun Lips Diner. She spent most of the afternoon there and sat in a booth when we arrived. A big pot of hot, spicy beverage awaited us in the middle of the table. Molly was typing something on her laptop and paid no attention to us. It took me a second to read the reflection of her screen in the window behind her. It said, "One with the void — post-launch briefing."
Soon, the hostess came by with a large salad cart, and we took turns to build our dinner heaps. I picked mostly herbs with an overdose of alfalfa croûtons.
We decided to order some carrotinis. Molly put away her computer, asked what was taking us so long, and fiddled with something under the table. After a moment, she made her hands visible; she was holding a bunch of twigs and covering their bottoms. We drew lots to decide who would be the driver on the way back to our motel. Pancake drew first and came up long. So did Abby and Joye. Ava drew long and giggled. Penny went next. We noticed her disapproving frown before we saw how short her short straw was, and we all pulled long moufs in sympathy. Pancake shook her head and grabbed the short straw from Penny. "I just don't feel it tonight. Penny, you go ahead and enjoy yourself. No bun will believe your ID, anyway, so good luck with that!" We broke into a slow burn of polite applause and Pancake bowed with a grin!
We were still noming our salads and waiting for the carrotinis when Pancake brought up the launch of our last story. Ava started out, "I would move the part about the ship trying to contact others to the beginning of the story. Maybe even lead with it, you know. Something about a string of weird pings, penetration attacks, or crack attempts that weren't. Explain how we thought it could have been some kids messing about or something like that. We can return to it later on and connect the dots." Penny nodded in approval and went cross-eyed as she tried to make her little tongue reach a piece of a raspberry stuck to her nose. Joey wiped his mouf, looked at Pancake and Abby, and asked, "Where are all the stories going? What kind of a world are they describing?"
Penny finished a plum raspberry and licked her lips all around, almost reaching the top of her nose with her tongue, and said, "We really don't know much about that space-faring society, do we? The news buns seem to be a part the justice system, and nobun messes with them. As soon as they break a story, it's all over for the 'bad' guys, and the 'good' ones are safe. Automation seems to be 'verboten!' There is nothing the protagonists do that couldn't be automated, and an attempt to deploy a fully autonomous system would constitute a crime against bunnity. How is that society structured? How did they get there? Everybun is a bunstronaut and ratties engineer, and every bun arts. I know, art as a verb—that's right."
"Yeah," started Ava, "The big news in the story was the cover-up of the autonomous system. The crew of the Buzzard was there simply to help the news buns tell the story."
"Why is this civilization putting so much effort into its space program? Is it their religion? Do they have a religion? What else do they do on the ground?" Joey wondered and continued, "What is life like for everybun else? Do they have some specific long-term goals in mind? Did they populate other planets in their solar system? Are they planning to leave their system? How did they manage to survive beyond the life cycle of other civilizations and empires that had collapsed or burned out like viral infections? How did they even came to be? What sort of a twisted case of evolutionary biology led to them?"
I stopped eating and became lost in the storm Joey kicked up in my head. None of us noticed our waiter standing next to us with our carrotinis.
I picked up my glass, sniffed the beverage and started feeling buzzed just from thinking about it. In short order, our bellehs warmed up, and our tongues loosened up. We started arguing about the probabilities of a world with bunstronauts existing somewhere, even if it had to be some parallel universe or such. Penny, barely able to sit straight by now, argued that we should try to run a simulation to see if a social structure like that could arise. Could it survive long enough to have a chance? If you want to put artificial intelligence to good use, see if you can figure out if it's even possible for the members of society to act in their best interest. We went on like that until the diner closed, and we got kicked out. How Pancake puts up with us like that, I'll never know. I think she loves us.
We had parked a long walk away from the diner because the place was packed when we got there. It took us forever to find a spot that would fit our classic convertible, a '58 Bunsmobile. We hopped along on a sidewalk between the road and a drainage ditch, still full of water, probably from the storms. It was late October, but you would never know it. The air, still hot and muggy at night, felt like a thick soup. Of course, the crocodiles couldn't be more pleased. Their barking croaks started to fill the air, and we tried to pick up our pace. To be exact, only Pancake rushed along. I could barely hop as I swayed from side to side. My mind started to play tricks on me. Giant live oaks and palms and old, fallen, and rotting tree trunks across the ditch looked ominous and ready to come to life. The crocodile barks were rattling my teeth and tickling my spine. I thought for sure that now, their yellow eyes would start chasing me. Something stirred in the palmetto bushes just as we got to the car. They couldn't do anything to us in the car, could they? We had left the convertible with the top down, and now, we piled in, sliding over the upholstery, wet from the evening dew. Pancake tried to start the car, and Abby hit the button to raise and close the top. The rest of us in the back seat tried to untangle ourselves from the bun pile we had become.
The cracking outside kept getting louder and closer. My neck started to cramp with fear. The car wouldn't start, and the top would not close. We could hear the engine turning over, but it just wouldn't start. Pancake tried again. Finally, it came to life with a wild roar. She threw it in reverse and started peeling out of the parking spot. She hit the brakes and threw the car into drive. I hit the rear seat, almost flying out of it as I tried to stand up and look at what was chasing us, but I couldn't keep my balance. I found myself on the floor again between the rear and front seats. Pancake stepped on the gas, and the rear wheels made a horrendous grinding sound as they kicked up tons of gravel and dust, desperately trying to gain traction. I could feel the car fishtailing as I tried once more to get up on my feet. Pancake flew out of the parking lot onto the empty, dark road. The smell of burning rubber made me sick as the centrifugal force of the turn threw me into Joey.
Somehow, I managed to steady myself and got a clear view of what we had left behind. A pair of giant, yellow eyes were staring at us. I was mortified. Then, the eyes turned red! They were getting smaller now, and I realized I was looking into a pair of traffic lights in the opposite lane.