Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler was the author of a dozen novels and several short stories — a giant of the field who died long before her time. She was the first science fiction writer to be receive the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “genius” grant, and also received a lifetime achievement award for her writing from the PEN American Center. In the speculative fiction field, she was also well-appreciated, having won two Hugos, two Nebulas, and a Locus Award–with her novelette “Bloodchild,” winning all three. She died in February 2006.

Butler’s work frequently explored the subject of life after apocalypse. Though none of her novel-length works would be classified primarily as post-apocalyptic, her three multi-book series–the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Patternist series, and the Parable duology–all take place in post-apocalyptic settings, making her an important author to the read in the sub-genre, even if her books are not really a part of it.

This story, which won the Hugo Award in 1984, was conceived by Butler after witnessing a bloody, senseless fight while riding the bus. In her story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, Butler said that witnessing the fight made her wonder “whether the human species would ever grow up enough to learn to communicate without using fists of one kind or another.” And then the first line of the story came to her.

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the estate of Octavia E. Butler.


Speech Sounds
by Octavia E. Butler

There was trouble aboard the Washington Boulevard bus. Rye had expected trouble sooner or later in her journey. She had put off going until loneliness and hopelessness drove her out. She believed she might have one group of relatives left alive — a brother and his two children twenty miles away in Pasadena. That was a day’s journey one-way, if she were lucky. The unexpected arrival of the bus as she left her Virginia Road home had seemed to be a piece of luck — until the trouble began.

Two young men were involved in a disagreement of some kind, or, more likely, a misunderstanding. They stood in the aisle, grunting and gesturing at each other, each in his own uncertain T stance as the bus lurched over the potholes. The driver seemed to be putting some effort into keeping them off balance. Still, their gestures stopped just short of contact — mock punches, hand games of intimidation to replace lost curses.

People watched the pair, then looked at one another and made small anxious sounds. Two children whimpered.

Rye sat a few feet behind the disputants and across from the back door. She watched the two carefully, knowing the fight would begin when someone’s nerve broke or someone’s

hand slipped or someone came to the end of his limited abil­ity to communicate. These things could happen anytime.

One of them happened as the bus hit an especially large pothole and one man, tall, thin, and sneering, was thrown into his shorter opponent.

Instantly, the shorter man drove his left fist into the dis­integrating sneer. He hammered his larger opponent as though he neither had nor needed any weapon other than his left fist. He hit quickly enough, hard enough to batter his opponent down before the taller man could regain his balance or hit back even once.

People screamed or squawked in fear. Those nearby scrambled to get out of the way. Three more young men roared in excitement and gestured wildly. Then, somehow, a second dispute broke out between two of these three— probably because one inadvertently touched or hit the other.

As the second fight scattered frightened passengers, a woman shook the driver’s shoulder and grunted as she ges­tured toward the fighting.

The driver grunted back through bared teeth. Frightened, the woman drew away.

Rye, knowing the methods of bus drivers, braced her­self and held on to the crossbar of the seat in front of her. When the driver hit the brakes, she was ready and the com­batants were not. They fell over seats and onto screaming passengers, creating even more confusion. At least one more fight started.

The instant the bus came to a full stop, Rye was on her feet, pushing the back door. At the second push, it opened and she jumped out, holding her pack in one arm. Several other passengers followed, but some stayed on the bus. Buses were so rare and irregular now, people rode when they could, no matter what. There might not be another bus today—or tomorrow. People started walking, and if they saw a bus they flagged it down. People making intercity trips like Rye’s from Los Angeles to Pasadena made plans to camp out, or risked seeking shelter with locals who might rob or murder them.

The bus did not move, but Rye moved away from it. She intended to wait until the trouble was over and get on again, but if there was shooting, she wanted the protection of a tree. Thus, she was near the curb when a battered blue Ford on the other side of the street made a U-turn and pulled up in front of the bus. Cars were rare these days—as rare as a severe short­age of fuel and of relatively unimpaired mechanics could make them. Cars that still ran were as likely to be used as weapons as they were to serve as transportation. Thus, when the driver of the Ford beckoned to Rye, she moved away warily. The dri­ver got out—a big man, young, neatly bearded with dark, thick hair. He wore a long overcoat and a look of wariness that matched Rye’s. She stood several feet from him, waiting to see what he would do. He looked at the bus, now rocking with the combat inside, then at the small cluster of passengers who had gotten off. Finally he looked at Rye again.

She returned his gaze, very much aware of the old forty-five automatic her jacket concealed. She watched his hands.

He pointed with his left hand toward the bus. The dark-tinted windows prevented him from seeing what was happen­ing inside.

His use of the left hand interested Rye more than his obvious question. Left-handed people tended to be less impaired, more reasonable and comprehending, less driven by frustration, confusion, and anger.