Author: Bryce Walton
Illustrator: Ed Emshwiller
Release date: April 16, 2019 [eBook #59287]
Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
The Morrisons didn't lose their freedom.
They were merely sentenced to the highways
for life, never stopping anywhere, going no
place, just driving, driving, driving....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, June 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Some people had disagreed with him. They were influential people. He was put on the road.
Stan wanted to scream at the big sixteen-cylinder Special to go faster. But Salt Lake City, where they would allow him to stop over for the maximum eight hours, was a long way off. And anyway, he couldn't go over a hundred. The Special had an automatic cut-off.
He stared down the super ten-lane Freeway, down the glassy river, plunging straight across the early desert morning—into nowhere. That was Anna's trouble. His wife couldn't just keep travelling, knowing there was no place to go. No one could do that. I can't do it much longer either, Stan thought. The two of us with no place to go but back and forth, across and over, retracing the same throughways, highways, freeways, a thousand times round and round like mobile bugs caught in a gigantic concrete net.
He kept watching his wife's white face in the rear-view mirror. Now there was this bitter veil of resignation painted on it. He didn't know when the hysteria would scream through again, what she would try next, or when.
She had always been highly emotional, vital, active, a fighter. The Special kept moving, but it was still a suffocating cage. She needed to stop over somewhere, longer, much longer than the maximum eight hours. She needed treatment, a good long rest, a doctor's care—
She might need more than that. Complete freedom perhaps. She had always been an all-or-nothing gal. But he couldn't give her that.
Shimmering up ahead he saw the shack about fifty feet off the Freeway, saw the fluttering of colorful hand-woven rugs and blankets covered with ancient Indian symbols.
It wasn't an authorized stop, but he stopped. The car swayed slightly as he pressed the hydraulic.
From the bluish haze of the desert's tranquil breath a jackrabbit hobbled onto the Freeway's fringe. It froze. Then with a squeal it scrambled back into the dust to escape the thing hurtling toward it out of the rising sun.
Stan jumped out. The dust burned. There was a flat heavy violence to the blast of morning sun on his face. He looked in through the rear window of the car.
"You'll be okay, honey." Her face was feverish. Sweat stood out on her forehead. She didn't look at him.
"It's too late," she said. "We're dead, Stan. Moving all the time. But not alive."
He turned. The pressure, the suppression, the helpless anger was in him meeting the heavy hand of the sun. An old Indian, wearing dirty levis and a denim shirt and a beaded belt, was standing near him. His face was angled, so dark it had a bluish tinge. "Blanket? Rugs? Hand-made. Real Indian stuff."
"My wife's sick," Stan said. "She needs a doctor. I want to use your phone to call a doctor. I can't leave the Freeway—"
This was the fourth unauthorized stop he had made since Anna had tried to jump out of the car back there—when it was going a hundred miles an hour.
The Indian saw the Special's license. He shrugged, then shook his head.
"For God's sake don't shake your head," Stan yelled. "Just let me use your phone—"
The Indian kept on shaking his head. There was no emotion, only a fatalistic acceptance of the overly-complex world he and many of his kind had rejected long ago. "You're a Crackpot."
"But what's that to you when I just want to use your phone? If I can get a doctor's affidavit—"
"If I help you, then the Law come down on my neck."
"But I only want to use the phone!"
"I cannot risk it. You drive on now."
He felt it, the thing that was slowly dying in Anna's eyes. This need to strike out, strike out hard and murderously at something real. This suppressed feeling had been growing in him now for too many miles to remember. He started forward. But the Indian slid the knife from his beaded belt. "I am sorry, and that is the honest truth," the Indian said. "But you have to move on now." The Indian stepped back toward the ancient symbols of his kind. "We have stopped moving. We stay here now no matter what. Now, White Doctor, it is your turn to move on."
He put his hand over his eyes as though to push something down. One act of violence, and the questionable "freedom" would be ended. That would be an admission of defeat. His hand still over his eyes, he backed away. Then he turned, choking and half blinded with smoldering rage.
Keep moving. Nothing else to do with them but put them on the road and keep them moving, never letting them stop over long enough to cause trouble, to stir up any wrong ideas. Hit the road, Crackpot. Head on down the super ten-lane Freeway into the second Middle Ages lit with neon.
Then he was running, yelling at Anna. She was past the shack and stumbling through sand toward the mountains. He coaxed her back and into the car, sickness gorging his throat as she kicked and screamed at him and he forced her into the corner of the back seat.
"Stan, we could run to the mountains."
"The Law wouldn't let us get very far. Remember, the Special's remotely controlled. If we leave the Freeway, they'd be on us in no time. They know when we stop, where we stop. They know if we leave the Freeway!"
"But we would have tried!"
"They're just waiting for us to do something legally wrong so they can put us away, honey. We can't let ourselves be goaded into doing anything legally wrong!"
"Stan—" she was shaking her head, and her eyes were wet. "Can't you see, can't you see? What they do to us doesn't matter now. It's what we do, or don't do—"
When she quieted down a little, he got back under the wheel. Within a hundred feet, the Special was going eighty-five miles an hour.
The thing he had to hold on to hard, was the fact that they had never really done anything wrong. Anna needed a good long rest so she could regain the proper perspective. The Higher Court itself had said they hadn't done anything wrong. There were thousands now on the Freeways, none of them had any real criminal labels on them. They were risks. They might be dangerous. Attitudes not quite right. A little off center one way or another at the wrong time. Some personal indiscretion in the past. A thought not quite orthodox in the present. A possible future threat. A threat to total security.
Be careful, easy does it. Too many black marks on his road record and the "freedom" of the road would go. Then he would be a criminal in fact, instead of a vague criminal possibility, and put behind bars. Or worse.
The hell with them. The hell with them all. He pulled over onto an emergency siding and stopped. Not authorized. A good long rest and talk with Anna—
Then he saw it. Suddenly, frantically, he wanted to move on. But now he couldn't. He kept seeing the light of defiance fading from Anna's eyes.
The Patrolcar was there, the way it always was there, suddenly, materializing out of the desert, or out of a mountain, a side street. Sometimes it was a helio dropping out of the sky. Sometimes it was a light flashing in darkness.
Every official of the law: city, county, state, or federal, had a full record on every Special. They could control them at will. Stop them, start them, keep them moving down the line.
Jails of the open road. Mobility lending to incarceration a mock illusion of freedom. Open sky. Open prairie. The Freeway stretching ahead.
And the Patrolcar coming up behind.
The Patrolcar stopped. The two Patrolmen in black and gold uniforms looked in at Stan. "Well, egghead," the older, beefy one said. "It was nice of you to stop without being asked. A fellow named Ferreti back at Snappy Service No. 7 said you might be a trouble-maker. We thought we ought to check up."
Stan said, "I wanted to use his phone to try to get a doctor to examine my wife. She's ill. She needs help and I've been trying—"
Without turning, the older Patrolman interrupted, "Larry, what you got on the philosopher here?"
The younger Patrolman who had a shy, almost embarrassed air about him looked into his black notebook. "He isn't a philosopher, not officially, Leland. Every Crackpot we stop, you figure him to be a philosopher. You just hate philosophers that's all."
"Well, that's a fact, boy." When he took the cigar out of his mouth, the corners of his mouth were stained brown. "My kid got loused up plenty by a philosopher in High School last year. I raised a squawk and got the Crackpot kicked out. I also got three others booted out for hiring him in the first place. I found out he was a lousy atheist!"
The Patrolman put the cigar back into his mouth. "What have you got on him, Lieutenant?"
"Stanley L. Morrison, B.A. Drake University, Class of '55. Doctor of Philosophy, Drake University, 1957. Federal employee 1957-59. Dropped from Federal employment, January, 1959—"
"What for, Lieutenant?"
"For excessive political enthusiasm for the preceding political party in office." The Lieutenant looked up almost apologetically. "Looks like he was unfortunate enough to have been on the wrong side of the fence when the Independants were elected."
"These guys are dangerous no matter what side they're on. A Crackpot shouldn't be on either side. Well, Lieutenant, what else?"
"Professor of Nuclear Physics, Drake University, 1960-62. Dismissed by Board of Regents May 31, charged with 'private thought inconsistent with the policies of the University'. Special inquiry August 5. Dismissal sustained. Was put on the road as a permanent risk to security February 3, 1963. He's been on the roads for a year and three months."
Stan forced quiet into his voice. "My wife's sick. If I could get a doctor to examine her, I'm sure I could get a permit to lay over somewhere so she can get rest and proper treatment."
"Only eight hours," the beefy one said. "That's the limit. And you're not supposed to have stopped here at all. Or back at the Indian's."
"I know," Stan said. "But this is an emergency. If you could help me—"
The beefy one grinned into the back seat. "That might be all that's bothering the missus, egghead. She ain't getting the proper treatment maybe."
Easy, easy does it. In the rear-view mirror he could see that what the Patrolman said had brought a flush of life to her face. She was rigid now, and then suddenly she screamed. "Stan! For God's sake, Stan, don't take any more from the simian!"
"Let's go," the young Lieutenant said quickly. "We've got the report and we'll forward it. There's no call to bait them."
"Shut up," the beefy one said.
"Don't tell me to shut up," the Lieutenant said. He put his notebook away. "This man's never committed any crime. That's why he's on the road. They didn't know what else to do with him. We're supposed to keep them moving that's all. Not hold them up because of personal vindictiveness."
The beefy one's face was getting red. "Don't use your big words on me, boy. I'll send you back to College."
"He's getting punishment enough. You've got nothing against him, or the woman."
The beefy one took a deep breath. "Okay, Lieutenant. But I'm going to drop a few words in the right place. I guess you know how the Commissioner feels about Crackpots."
"I don't give a damn. Come on, let's get out of here." The Lieutenant looked at Stan a moment. "You'd better move on, Doctor."
"Thanks," Stan said.
"At the next Snappy Service maybe you can phone. That's an hour's authorized stop for Specials. There's a Government Project in the hills nearby. You might be able to contact a Doctor there."
The sage spread out to a blur. Heat wavered up from the Freeway. In the rear-view mirror he saw Anna leaning back, her legs stretched out, her arms limp at her sides. She wasn't thinking about this with an historical perspective, that was the trouble. She had lost the saving sense of continuity with generations gone, which stretched like a lifeline across the frightening present.
Keep the perspective. Wait it out. That was the only way. This was an historical phase, part of a cycle. Stan couldn't blame any one. Anxiety, suspicion of intellectuals and men of science—as though they had been any more responsible really than any one else—suspicion and fear. There always had to be whipping boys. In one form or another, he knew, it had happened many times before. Another time of change and danger. There was a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning.
When things were better, they hadn't remained better. When they were bad, they couldn't stay bad. Wait it out. One thing he knew—neither he nor any other scientist could detach himself from life. The frightened policemen of the public conscience had made the mistake of thinking they could detach the scientist.
I'll not withdraw from it. All of it represents a necessary change. If not for the immediate better, then I'll be here for the immediate worst which will someday change into something better than ever.
But Anna's tired voice was whispering in his ear. "First of all, we're individuals, men, women. We've got to fight, fight back!"
"At what? Ourselves?"
A sign said: HAL'S SNAPPY SERVICE. TWENTY-SEVEN MILES.
She's right, he thought, and started slowing down. This is it. He wasn't going any farther until Anna was examined, and he was given an okay to stop somewhere so she could rest.
It was a dusty oasis, an arid anachronism on the desert's edge. Beyond it, the mountains blundered up like giants from a purplish haze, brooding and somehow threatening. Groves of cottonwoods could be seen far ahead, and sprinklings of green reaching into the thinning sage.
The old man shuffled out of the shade by the coke machine. Behind him, through dusty glass, Stan saw the blurred faces staring with still curiosity.
The old man hesitated, then came around between the pumps to the driver's side. He was all stooped bone and leathery skin. His face, Stan thought beneath the rising desperation, resembled an African ceremonial mask.
To the left a '62 Fordster was cranked up for a grease job. But the only life around it was a scrawny dog lying out flat to get all the air possible on its ribby body, its tongue hanging out in the black grease.
"The car's okay," Stan said. "I just want to use your telephone."
"Doctor Morrison, you'd better go on to Salt Lake City. That's an eight-hour stopover."
"My wife needs a doctor's okay for a long rest. I can't take a chance on going clear to Salt Lake City."
"But this is only an hour stop."
Stan got out and shoved past the old man. Heat waves shivered up out of the concrete and through the soles of his shoes. The heat seared his dry throat and burned his lungs.
Anna wasn't even looking. She seemed to have forgotten him. Almost everyone had forgotten him by now, he thought, forgotten Doctor Stanley Morrison the man who had never been afraid to speak out and say what he thought, and think what he wanted to think. Fifteen months with never more than an eight hour stopover. Thought and self-regard frozen by perpetual motion, and shriveled by consequent neglect. Only the old man remembered. That was odd.
A man stepped into the doorway. He was lean and powerful with a long gaunt chewing jaw like that of a horse. His eyes were small and black, and he was grinning with anticipation. Stan felt his stomach muscles tighten.
Behind the man, Stan saw the kid. Almost as tall as the man who was obviously his father, but rail-thin, like an emaciated duplicate of the man, a starved, frustrated shadow, grinning and feverishly picking at a pimple under his left ear. He carried a grease-gun cradled in his left arm as though it were a machine gun.
"I'd like to use your phone, please," Stan said. "My wife's ill. I want to phone the Government Project and see if I can get a doctor over here to look at her."
"What seems to be troubling the missus?"
"I don't know!"
"Then how do you know it's a serious sickness, Crackpot?"
"Just let me use the phone? Will you do that?"
"They phoned in ahead, Crackpot. Said you might be a trouble-maker."
"I don't want to make any trouble. I just want to use the phone!"
"Why? Even if the Doc came over, you wouldn't be here. He can't get here inside an hour. And that's all the longer you can stay here. You got to move on."
"I'm coming in to use the phone," Stan heard himself saying. He fought to keep the breathiness out of his voice, the trembling out of his throat.
"I don't guess I'd want to have it said I was coddling a Crackpot."
"I never caused you any trouble."
"You helped build hellbombs," the man said. He took the toothpick out of his mouth. "You crazy bastards got to be kept moving along the road."
"How do you know what I did or didn't do?"
"You're a Crackpot."
"I never helped build any kind of bomb," Stan whispered. "But even if I did—"
"You're one of them nuclear physicists."
"I was an instructor at a University. I taught at a Government school once too—for a while—" He stopped himself, realizing he was defending himself as though somehow he suspected his own guilt.
"You taught other guys how to build hellbombs. Who needs you and your kind, Crackpot? We need your brains like we need a knife in the back."
Stan lunged forward. The kid yelled something in a high cracked voice as Stan lashed out again. He felt his knuckles scrape across hard teeth. Blood leaped from the man's upper lip in a thin crimson slash. His eyes widened with a grudging respect, then he snarled through the blood as he stumbled backward and off balance. He fell against the window and trying to regain his balance, reeled and went down in a welter of empty gallon oil cans.
He gathered himself for an upward lunge. Through the blood staining his teeth, he muttered, "By gawd, Crackpot. I didn't think you had the guts!"
Stan glanced out the window and saw that Anna was gone from the car.
Dimly, he heard the man saying he was going to beat hell out of the Crackpot, going to beat the Crackpot over the head and then the Crackpot wouldn't be able to cook up any more dangerous ideas in it for a long, long time.
Anna may die now, Stan thought as he stood there bent over a little, feeling his wet fists tightening. She may die now, because of a frustrated fool who doesn't know what else to do with himself on a hot and dull and empty afternoon.
Stan suddenly caught the flash of color out of the corner of his eye. He twisted, not thinking at all, and felt his fist sink into the kid's stomach. The kid fell, curled up among the empty oil cans. He writhed and moaned and held his stomach.
"Get up," Stan yelled into the man's face. "Get up—"
The man came up all at once, and his weight hurled Stan clear across the room. He felt the gum machine shatter under him, and the metal grinding into his side as he rolled. Stan felt the grease-gun in his hand as he saw the man lifting the tire tool, and then Stan swung the grease gun into the face, seeing the terrible grin, the blood-stained white smile.
Unrecognizable as it was, the man's face wouldn't go away. Stan swung at it again. Then he heard her voice, Anna's voice, intense and alive, and there was a flash of Anna the way he remembered her a thousand years ago, before they were put on the road. She was tearing at the man's face with her fingernails and kicking him savagely.
Stan had the man's shirt collar and it was ripping under his fingers as he slammed the head against the concrete floor. The thudding rhythm was coming up through his arm and throbbing behind his eyes.
Like drums, he thought as a sickening light flashed on the dusty glass, like primitive war drums beating out a dance of tribal doom.
Suddenly feeling sick and weak, he stood up and walked stiffly out into the sun.
He leaned against the side of the building trying to keep from retching. Anna touched his arm and he looked up, half blinded by the glare of the sun. Her face was flushed and alive. She seemed ten years younger.
"Don't be sorry," she said. "Be glad, Stan."
"They broke us," he whispered. "We've crawled into the cage."
"It doesn't matter, Stan, it doesn't matter what they do to us now! It's something to admit you're human, isn't it?"
She was partly right at least. He felt both glad and sad. But in either case, it was the end of the road.
He saw the old man lowering the hood of the Special. He ran back between the pumps carrying a metal tool box. "I've fixed it," he said, breathing heavily. "Now get out of here. Push it to the limit. I broke the cut-off too. Hurry it up!"
"But what's the use?" Stan said. "They'll get us sooner or later—"
"They're not going to get you now, not if you stop reasoning everything out as though it were a problem in calculus! I've cut the remote control off, and the radar and radio. They won't know where you are. I've changed the license plate too. But hurry out of here before Hal or his kid start phoning."
"But being on the Freeway," Stan said, "they'll catch up with us! What's the use—"
"Stan!" Anna said sharply. "Can't you see? We're getting away!"
"I don't want to run away from it," Stan said.
"You're not running away from anything," the old man said. "You'll find out. Follow my directions and you'll find out. You're not running away. You can get out of the flood water for a while, sit on the bank, until the water drops and clears a little."
Stan looked into the old man's face a long moment. "Who the hell are you anyway?"
"That doesn't matter, Doctor Morrison. Now will you get out of here! Move on down the road!"
Stan finally nodded and took Anna's arm and they started toward the Special. "All right, but what about you?" he asked the old man.
"I'll make out. You just be concerned about yourself, Doctor Morrison. This isn't the first time I've helped someone off the road. It won't be the last time either, I hope."
He waved to them as the Special, without any limit to its speed now except the limitations of a driver's nerve, roared away toward the mountains.
Now the special became anonymous on the Freeway, one of countless cars hurtling down the super ten-lane Freeway, its license changed, its controls and checkers cut off, its sovereignty returned to it by a nameless old man, a box of wrenches, and a roll of wire.
Three hundred miles farther on, the Freeway began a long banked curve; a thick wall of cottonwoods, willows and smaller brush lined the side where a creek rushed out of a cleft in the lower hills and ran along the Freeway's edge.
Stan started to slow down.
"There, that's it!" Anna said, pointing excitedly. "The big rock, the three tall trees. There, between the rock and the tree. Turn, Stan. Turn!"
"But there isn't any road. There isn't—"
He blinked as the Special roared off the Freeway and smashed through a solid wall of leaves, branches and brush. Then they were on a narrow winding dirt road, dipping down into the stream where a foot of water ran over stones to create a fiord. It twisted up the other side, around the creek's edge, over stones and gravel, twisting tortuously upward and out of sight like a coiled rope.
"Go on, Stan, keep going!"
Stan kept going. It demanded all his power of concentration just to stay on the road which was hardly more than a pathway through the rising mountains. He had no time to think, and had very little to say.
Some hundred and fifty miles farther into the mountains, at an altitude that bit into their lungs, they saw the marker almost buried in rocks at the left of the road. The place where the old man had told them to stop and wait.
But they didn't have to wait. A man, lean and healthy for his age—which must have been at least sixty, Stan thought—stepped from behind a rock, and came toward the Special. He was smiling and he extended his hand.
"Doctor and Mrs. Morrison," he said. Anna was already out of the car, shaking his hand. Stan got out. He took a second look, then whispered: "Doctor Bergmann!"
The man wore levis and a mackinaw, and he carried a rifle slung under one arm. "I wasn't expecting you to recognize me," he said as they shook hands. "I've lost about thirty-five pounds." He smiled again. "It's healthier up here."
He walked around to the driver's side and opened the door. The motor was still running. Stan realized then what Bergmann was doing, and for some reason without definition he started to protest. Bergmann was setting the automatic clutch and releasing the brake. The Special started moving up the road, but there was no one inside to turn the wheel when it reached the hairpin turn about fifty feet ahead.
Stan watched the car gaining speed, its left door swinging like the door in a vacant house. He thought of stories he had heard about convicts finally released after many years, stunned, frightened by reality, begging to be returned to the restricted but understandable cell. Then he smiled. Anna smiled.
The Special, once you pushed the right button, could do almost everything by itself, feed itself gas, gain speed, shift its gears; but it didn't know when to turn to avoid self-destruction.
Stan winced slightly as the car lurched a little and then leaped out into space. He felt the black void opening under him as though he were still in the Special. Fifteen months.
His ears were filled with the sudden screeching whine of the wheels against unresisting air, then the world seemed to burst with a thundering series of solid smashing roars which were quickly dissipated in the high mountain air.
Doctor Bergmann went over to the edge and looked down. "That's the tenth one," he said. "We're going to send a work party down there in a few days to cover it all over with rocks. Still, I doubt if we have to worry about them spotting the wreckage."
He turned. "Well, let's start hiking. It's still a few miles."
"Where," Stan asked. "I've gone along this far. I've had no choice. But now what's it all about?"
"Didn't the old man tell you?"
"Just remember, Morrison. We're not running away. This is an old Mormon trail. A lot of the old pioneers took it. That marker says that the Williams-Conner Party camped here and was massacred by Indians in 1867. There's an old Indian city at about three thousand feet. I guess we're the first ones to use it for maybe a thousand years. We've got an archeologist up there—Michael Hilliard—who's been going slightly crazy. Anyway, we've got books up there, we raise most of our own food, and we've plenty of time to study and try to figure out where we made the big mistakes. We're really doing very well."
"But what about the old man?" Anna asked.
Bergmann chuckled. "Arch has turned into a regular man of a thousand faces. He works along the Freeways and watches for those who are at the breaking point and can't stay on the road any longer. Some of those condemned to the Freeways are criminals, others are fools or misguided zealots; and we've got to be careful not to wise those birds up by mistake. Arch has an unerring instinct, and sending our people to us is his job."
The three of them started walking up the old pioneer trail.
"We made a lot of mistakes," Bergmann said. "All of us, some more than others. You can't blame people for being afraid, suspicious of us. We did unleash the potentialities for total destruction without ever thinking about the social implications or ever bothering to wonder about how our contributions would be used and controlled.
"So we're off there waiting now. Waiting and studying. Someday they'll need us again. And we'll be ready."
"But who was the old man?" Anna asked.
Bergmann laughed. "Only the greatest physicist of the age. Remember Arch Hoffenstein?"
Stan put his arm over Anna's shoulders and they walked on, and up. He had almost forgotten. But now he never would. Somewhere, Arch Hoffenstein was hitch-hiking along the Freeway with the ghost of Galileo.