BY EDWARD W. LUDWIG
Jetways were excellent substitutes for war,
perfect outlets for all forms of neuroses.
And the unfit were weeded out by death....
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Up the concrete steps. Slowly, one, two, three, four. Down the naked, ice-white corridor. The echo of his footfalls like drumbeats, ominous, threatening.
Around him, bodies, faces, moving dimly behind the veil of his fear.
At last, above an oaken door, the black-lettered sign:
DEPARTMENT OF LAND-JET VEHICLES
DIVISION OF LICENSES
He took a deep breath. He withdrew his handkerchief and wiped perspiration from his forehead, his upper lip, the palms of his hands.
His mind caressed the hope: Maybe I've failed the tests. Maybe they won't give me a license.
He opened the door and stepped inside.
The metallic voice of a robot-receptionist hummed at him:
Click. "Have you an appointment?"
His gaze ran over the multitude of silver-boxed analyzers, computers, tabulators, over the white-clad technicians and attendants, over the endless streams of taped data fed from mouths in the dome-shaped ceiling.
"Have you an appointment?" repeated the robot.
"Oh. At 4:45 p. m."
Click. "Follow the red arrow in Aisle Three, please."
Tom Rogers moved down the aisle, eyes wide on the flashing, arrow-shaped lights just beneath the surface of the quartzite floor.
Abruptly, he found himself before a desk. Someone pushed him into a foam-rubber contour chair.
"Surprised, eh, boy?" boomed a deep voice. "No robots at this stage of the game. No sir. This requires the human touch. Get me?"
"Well, let's see now." The man settled back in his chair behind the desk and began thumbing through a file of papers. He was paunchy and bald save for a forepeak of red-brown fuzz. His gray eyes, with the dreamy look imposed by thick contact lenses, were kindly. Sweeping across his flat chest were two rows of rainbow-bright Driver's Ribbons. Two of the bronze accident stars were flanked by smaller stars which indicated limb replacements.
Belatedly, Tom noticed the desk's aluminum placard which read Harry Hayden, Final Examiner—Human.
Tom thought, Please, Harry Hayden, tell me I failed. Don't lead up to it. Please come out and say I failed the tests.
"Haven't had much time to look over your file," mused Harry Hayden. "Thomas Darwell Rogers. Occupation: journalism student. Unmarried. No siblings. Height, five-eleven. Weight, one-sixty-three. Age, twenty."
Harry Hayden frowned. "Twenty?" he repeated, looking up.
Oh, God, here it comes again.
"Yes, sir," said Tom Rogers.
Harry Hayden's face hardened. "You've tried to enlist before? You were turned down?"
"This is my first application."
Sudden hostility swept aside Harry Hayden's expression of kindliness. He scowled at Tom's file. "Born July 18, 2020. This is July 16, 2041. In two days you'll be twenty-one. We don't issue new licenses to people over twenty-one."
"I—I know, sir. The psychiatrists believe you adjust better to Driving when you're young."
"In fact," glowered Harry Hayden, "in two days you'd have been classified as an enlistment evader. Our robo-statistics department would have issued an automatic warrant of arrest."
"I know, sir."
"Then why'd you wait so long?" The voice was razor-sharp.
Tom wiped a fresh burst of sweat from his forehead. "Well, you know how one keeps putting things off. I just—"
"You don't put off things like this, boy. Why, my three sons were lined up here at five in the morning on their sixteenth birthdays. Every mother's son of 'em. They'd talked of nothing else since they were twelve. Used to play Drivers maybe six, seven hours every day...." His voice trailed.
"Most kids are like that," said Tom.
"Weren't you?" The hostility in Harry Hayden seemed to be churning like boiling water.
"Oh, sure," lied Tom.
"I don't get it. You say you wanted to Drive, but you didn't try to enlist."
You can't tell him you've been scared of jetmobiles ever since you saw that crash when you were three. You can't say that, at seven, you saw your grandfather die in a jetmobile and that after that you wouldn't even play with a jetmobile toy. You can't tell him those things because five years of psychiatric treatment didn't get the fear out of you. If the medics didn't understand, how could Harry Hayden?
Tom licked his lips. And you can't tell him how you used to lie in bed praying you'd die before you were sixteen—or how you've pleaded with Mom and Dad not to make you enlist till you were twenty. You can't—
Inspiration struck him. He clenched his fists. "It—it was my mother, sir. You know how mothers are sometimes. Hate to see their kids grow up. Hate to see them put on a uniform and risk being killed."
Harry Hayden digested the explanation for a few seconds. It seemed to pacify him. "By golly, that's right. Esther took it hard when Mark died in a five-car bang-up out of San Francisco. And when Larry got his three summers ago in Europe. Esther's my wife—Mark was my youngest, Larry the oldest."
He shook his head. "But it isn't as bad as it used to be. Organ and limb grafts are pretty well perfected, and with electro-hypnosis operations are painless. The only fatalities now are when death is immediate, when it happens before the medics get to you. Why, no more than one out of ten Drivers died in the last four-year period."
A portion of his good nature returned. "Anyway, your personal life's none of my business. You understand the enlistment contract?"
Tom nodded. Damn you, Harry Hayden, let me out of here. Tell me I failed, tell me I passed. But damn you, let me out.
"Well?" said Harry Hayden, waiting.
"Oh. The enlistment contract. First enlistment is for four years. Renewal any time during the fourth year at the option of the enlistee. Minimum number of hours required per week: seven. Use of unauthorized armour or offensive weapons punishable by $5,000.00 fine or five years in prison. All accidents and deaths not witnessed by a Jetway 'copter-jet must be reported at once by visi-phone to nearest Referee and Medical Depot. Oh yes, maximum speed: 900 miles per."
"Right! You got it, boy!" Harry Hayden paused, licking his lips. "Now, let's see. Guess I'd better ask another question or two. This is your final examination, you know. What do you remember about the history of Driving?"
Tom was tempted to say, "Go to Hell, you fat idiot," but he knew that whatever he did or said now was of no importance. The robot-training tests he'd undergone during the past three weeks, only, were of importance.
Dimly, he heard himself repeating the phrases beaten into his mind by school history-tapes:
"In the 20th Century a majority of the Earth's peoples were filled with hatreds and frustrations. Humanity was cursed with a world war every generation or so. Between wars, young people had no outlets for their energy, and many of them formed bands of delinquents. Even older people developed an alarming number of psychoses and neuroses.
"The institution of Driving was established in 1998 after automobiles were declared obsolete because of their great number. The Jetways were retained for use of young people in search of thrills."
"Right!" Harry Hayden broke in. "Now, the kids get all the excitement they need, and there are no more delinquent bands and wars. When you've spent a hitch or two killing or almost being killed, you're mature. You're ready to settle down and live a quiet life—just like most of the old-time war veterans used to do. And you're trained to think and act fast, you've got good judgment. And the weak and unfit are weeded out. Right, boy?"
Tom nodded. A thought forced its way up from the layer of fear that covered his mind. "Right—as far as it goes."
Tom's voice quavered, but he said, "I mean that's part of it. The rest is that most people are bored with themselves. They think that by traveling fast they can escape from themselves. After four or eight years of racing at 800 per, they find out they can't escape after all, so they become resigned. Or, sometimes if they're lucky enough to escape death, they begin to feel important after all. They aren't so bored then because a part of their mind tells them they're mightier than death."
Harry Hayden whistled. "Hey, I never heard that before. Is that in the tapes now? Can't say I understand it too well, but it's a fine idea. Anyway, Driving's good. Cuts down on excess population, too—and with Peru putting in Jetways, it's world-wide. Yep, by golly. Yes, sir!"
He thrust a pen at Tom. "All right, boy. Just sign here."
Tom Rogers took the pen automatically. "You mean, I—"
"Yep, you came through your robot-training tests A-1. Oh, some of the psycho reports aren't too flattering. Lack of confidence, sense of inferiority, inability to adjust. But nothing serious. A few weeks of Driving'll fix you up. Yep, boy, you've passed. You're getting your license. Tomorrow morning you'll be on the Jetway. You'll be Driving, boy, Driving!"
Oh Mother of God, Mother of God....
"And now," said Harry Hayden, "you'll want to see your Hornet."
"Of course," murmured Tom Rogers, swaying.
The paunchy man rose and led Tom down an aluminite ramp and onto a small observation platform some ninety feet above the ground.
A dry summer wind licked at Tom's hair and stung his eyes. Nausea twisted at his innards. He felt as if he were perched on the edge of a slippery precipice.
"There," intoned Harry Hayden, "is the Jetway. Beautiful, eh?"
Trembling, Tom forced his vision to the bright, smooth canyon beneath him. Its bottom was a shining white asphalt ribbon, a thousand feet wide, that cut arrow-straight through the city. Its walls were naked concrete banks a hundred feet high whose reinforced lips curved inward over the antiseptic whiteness.
Harry Hayden pointed a chubby finger downward. "And there they are—the Hornets. See 'em, boy? Right there in front of the assembly shop. Twelve of 'em. Brand new DeLuxe Super-Jet '41 Hornets. Yes, sir. Going to be twelve of you initiated tomorrow."
Tom scowled at the twelve jetmobiles shaped like flattened tear-drops. No sunlight glittered on their dead-black bodies. They squatted silent and foreboding, oblivious to sunlight, black bullets poised to hurl their prospective occupants into fury and horror.
Grandpa looked so very white in his coffin, so very dead—
"What's the matter, boy? You sick?"
"N—no, of course not."
Harry Hayden laughed. "I get it. You thought you'd get to really see one. Get in it, I mean, try it out. It's too late in the day, boy. Shop's closing. You couldn't drive one anyway. Regulation is that new drivers start in the morning when they're fresh. But tomorrow morning one of those Hornets'll be assigned to you. Delivered to the terminal nearest your home. Live far from your terminal?"
"About four blocks."
"Half a minute on the mobile-walk. What college you go to?"
"Lord, that's 400 miles away. You been living there?"
"No. Commuting every day on the monorail."
"Hell, that's for old women. Must have taken you over an hour to get there. Now you'll make it in almost thirty minutes. Still, it's best to take it easy the first day. Don't get 'er over 600 per. But don't let 'er fall beneath that either. If you do, some old veteran'll know you're a greenhorn and try to knock you off."
Suddenly Harry Hayden stiffened.
"Here come a couple! Look at 'em, boy!"
The low rumbling came out of the west, as of angry bees.
Twin pinpoints of black appeared on the distant white ribbon. Louder and louder the rumbling. Larger and larger the dots. To Tom, the sterile Jetway was transformed into a home of horror, an amphitheatre of death.
Louder and larger—
"Hey, how'ja like that, boy? They're gonna crack the sonic barrier or my name's not Harry Hayden!"
Tom's white-knuckled hands grasped a railing for support. Christ, I'm going to be sick. I'm going to vomit.
"But wait'll five o'clock or nine in the morning. That's when you see the traffic. That's when you really do some Driving!"
Tom gulped. "Is—is there a rest room here?"
"What's that, boy?"
"A—a rest room."
"What's the matter, boy? You do look sick. Too much excitement, maybe?"
Tom motioned frantically.
Harry Hayden pointed, slow comprehension crawling over his puffy features. "Up the ramp, to your right."
Tom Rogers made it just in time....
An explosion of laughter. A descent of beaming faces, a thrusting forward of hands.
Mom reached him first. Her small face was pale under its thin coat of make-up. Her firm, rounded body was like a girl's in its dress of swishing Martian silk, yet her blue eyes were sad and her voice held a trembling fear:
"You passed, Tom?" Softly.
Tom's upper lip twitched. Was she afraid that he'd passed the tests—or that he hadn't! He wasn't sure.
Before he could answer, Dad broke in, hilariously. "Everybody passes these days excepts idiots and cripples!"
Tom tried to join the chorus of laughter.
Dad said, more softly, "You did pass, didn't you?"
"I passed," said Tom, forcing a smile. "But, Dad, I didn't want a surprise party. Really, I—"
"Nonsense." Dad straightened. "This is the happiest moment of our lives—or at least it should be."
Dad grinned. An understanding, intimate and gentle, flickered across his handsome, gray-thatched features. For an instant Tom felt that he was not alone.
Then the grin faded. Dad resumed his role of proud and blustering father. Light glittered on his three rows of Driver's Ribbons. The huge Blue Ribbon of Honor was in their center, like a blue flower in an evil garden of bronze accident stars, crimson fatality ribbons and silver death's-heads.
In a moment of desperation Tom turned to Mom. The sadness was still in her face, but it seemed over-shadowed by pride. What was it she'd once said? "It's terrible, Tom, to think of your becoming a Driver, but it'd be a hundred times more terrible not to see you become one."
He knew now that he was alone, an exile, and Mom and Dad were strangers. After all, how could one person, entrenched in his own little world of calm security, truly know another's fear and loneliness?
"Just a little celebration," Dad was saying. "You wouldn't be a Driver unless we gave you a real send-off. All our friends are here, Tom. Uncle Mack and Aunt Edith and Bill Ackerman and Lou Dorrance—"
No, Dad, Tom thought. Not our friends. Your friends. Don't you remember that a man of twenty who isn't a Driver has no friends?
A lank, loose-jowled man jostled between them. Tom realized that Uncle Mack was babbling at him.
"Knew you'd make it, Tom. Never believed what some people said 'bout you being afraid. My boy, of course, enlisted when he was only seventeen. Over thirty now, but he still Drives now and then. Got a special license, you know. Only last week—"
Dad exclaimed, "A toast to our new Driver!"
Murmurs of delight. Clinkings of glasses. Gurglings of liquid.
Someone bounded a piano chord. Voices rose:
Tom downed his glass of champagne. A pleasant warmth filled his belly. A satisfying numbness dulled the raw ache of fear.
He smiled bitterly.
There was kindness and gentleness within the human heart, he thought, but like tiny inextinguishable fires, there were ferocity and savageness, too. What else could one expect from a race only a few thousand years beyond the spear and stone axe?
Through his imagination passed a parade of sombre scenes:
The primitive man dancing about a Paleolithic fire, chanting an invocation to strange gods who might help in tomorrow's battle with the hairy warriors from the South.
The barrel-chested Roman gladiator, with trident and net, striding into the great stone arena.
The silver-armored knight, gauntlet in gloved hand, riding into the pennant-bordered tournament ground.
The rock-shouldered fullback trotting beneath an avalanche of cheers into the 20th Century stadium.
Men needed a challenge to their wits, a test for their strength. The urge to combat and the lust for danger was as innate as the desire for life. Who was he to say that the law of Driving was unjust?
Nevertheless he shuddered.
And the singers continued:
The jetmobile terminal was like a den of chained, growling black tigers. White-cloaked attendants scurried from stall to stall, deft hands flying over atomic-engine controls and flooding each vehicle with surging life.
Ashen-faced, shivering in the early-morning coolness, Tom Rogers handed an identification slip to an attendant.
"Okay, kid," the rat-faced man wheezed, "there she is—Stall 17. Brand new, first time out. Good luck."
Tom stared in horror at the grumbling metal beast.
"But remember," the attendant said, "don't try to make a killing your first day. Most Drivers aren't out to get a Ribbon every day either. They just want to get to work or school, mostly, and have fun doing it."
Have fun doing it, thought Tom. Good God.
About him passed other black-uniformed Drivers. They paused at the heads of their stalls, donned crash-helmets and safety belts, adjusted goggles. They were like primitive warriors, like cocky Roman gladiators, like armored knights, like star fullbacks. They were formidable and professional.
Tom's imagination wandered.
By Jupiter's beard, we'll vanquish Attila and his savages. We'll prove ourselves worthy of being men and Romans.... The Red Knight? I vow, Mother, that his blood alone shall know the sting of the lance.... Don't worry, Dad. Those damned Japs and Germans won't lay a hand on me.... Watch me on TV, folks. Three touchdowns today—I promise!
The attendant's voice snapped him back to reality. "What you waiting for, kid? Get in!"
Tom's heart pounded. He felt the hot pulse of blood in his temples.
The Hornet lay beneath him like an open, waiting coffin.
"Hi, Tom!" a boyish voice called. "Bet I beat ya!"
Tom blinked and beheld a small-boned, tousled-haired lad of seventeen striding past the stall. What was his name? Miles. That was it. Larry Miles. A frosh at Western U.
A skinny, pimply-faced boy suddenly transformed into a black-garbed warrior. How could this be?
"Okay," Tom called, biting his lip.
He looked again at the Hornet. A giddiness returned to him.
You can say you're sick, he told himself. It's happened before: a hangover from the party. Sure. Tomorrow you'll feel better. If you could just have one more day, just one—
Other Hornets were easing out into the slip, sleek black cats embarking on an insane flight. One after another, grumbling, growling, spatting scarlet flame from their tail jets.
Perhaps if he waited a few minutes, the traffic would be thinner. He could have coffee, let the other nine-o'clock people go on ahead of him.
No, dammit, get it over with. If you crash, you crash. If you die, you die. You and Grandpa and a million others.
He gritted his teeth, fighting the omnipresent giddiness. He eased his body down into the Hornet's cockpit. He felt the surge of incredible energies beneath the steelite controls. Compared to this vehicle, the ancient training jets were as children's toys.
An attendant snapped down the plexite canopy. Ahead, a guide-master twirled a blue flag in a starting signal.
Tom flicked on a switch. His trembling hands tightened about the steering lever. The Hornet lunged forward, quivering as it was seized by the Jetway's electromagnetic guide-field.
One hundred miles an hour, two hundred, three hundred.
Down the great asphalt valley he drove. Perspiration formed inside his goggles, steaming the glass. He tore them off. The glaring whiteness hurt his eyes.
Swish, swish swish.
Jetmobiles roared past him. The rushing wind of their passage buffeted his own car. His hands were knuckled white around the steering lever.
He recalled the advice of Harry Hayden: Don't let 'er under 600 per. If you do, some old veteran'll know you're a greenhorn and try to knock you off.
Lord. Six hundred.
But strangely, a measure of desperate courage crept into his fear-clouded mind. If Larry Miles, a pimply-faced kid of seventeen, could do it, so could he. Certainly, he told himself.
His foot squeezed down on the accelerator. Atomic engines hummed smoothly.
To his right, he caught a kaleidoscopic glimpse of a white gyro-ambulance. A group of metal beasts lay huddled on the emergency strip like black ants feeding on a carcass.
Like Grandfather, he thought. Like those two moments out of the dark past, moments of screaming flame and black death and a child's horror.
The scene was gone, transformed into a cluster of black dots on his rear-vision radarscope.
His stomach heaved. For a moment he thought he was going to be sick again.
But stronger now than his horror was a growing hatred of that horror. His body tensed as if he were fighting a physical enemy. He fought his memories, tried to thrust them back into the oblivion of lost time, tried to leave them behind him just as his Hornet had left the cluster of metal beasts.
He took a deep breath. He was not going to be sick after all.
Five hundred now. Six hundred. He'd reached the speed without realizing it. Keep 'er steady. Stay on the right. If Larry Miles can do it, so can you.
God, where did that one come from?
Only ten minutes more. You'll be there. You'll make a right hand turn at the college. The automatic pilot'll take care of that. You won't have to get in the fast traffic lanes.
He wiped perspiration from his forehead. Not so bad, these Drivers. Like Harry Hayden said, the killers come out on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, most of us are just anxious to get to work and school.
Six hundred, seven hundred, seven-twenty—
Did he dare tackle the sonic barrier?
The white asphalt was like opaque mist. The universe seemed to consist only of the broad expanse of Jetway.
Someone passing even at this speed! The crazy fool! And cutting in, the flame of his exhaust clouding Tom's windshield!
Tom's foot jerked off the accelerator. His Hornet slowed. The car ahead disappeared into the white distance like a black arrow.
His legs were suddenly like ice water. He pulled over to the emergency strip. Down went the speedometer—five hundred, four, three, two, one, zero....
He saw the image of the approaching Hornet in his rear-vision radarscope. It was traveling fast and heading straight toward him. Heading onto the emergency strip.
Tom's heart churned. There would be no physical contact between the two Hornets—but the torrent of air from the inch-close passage would be enough to hurl his car into the Jetway bank like a storm-blown leaf.
There was no time to build enough acceleration for escape. His only chance was to frighten the attacker away. He swung his Hornet right, slammed both his acceleration and braking jet controls to full force. The car shook under the sudden release of energy. White-hot flame roared from its two dozen jets. Tom's Hornet was enclosed by a sphere of flame.
But dwarfing the roar was the thunder of the attacking Hornet. A black meteor in Tom's radarscope, it zoomed upon him. Tom closed his eyes, braced himself for the impact.
There was no impact. There was only an explosion of sound and a moderate buffeting of his car. It was as if many feet, not inches, had separated the two Hornets.
Tom opened his eyes and flicked off his jet controls.
Ahead, through the plexite canopy, he beheld the attacker.
It was far away now, like an insane, fiery black bird. Both its acceleration and braking jets flamed. It careened to the far side of the Jetway and zig-zagged up the curved embankment. Its body trembled as its momentum fought the Jetway's electromagnetic guide-field.
As if in an incredible carnival loop-the-loop, the Hornet topped the lip of the wall. It left the concrete, did a backward somersault, and gyrated through space like a flaming pinwheel.
It descended with an earth-shaking crash in the center of the gleaming Jetway.
What happened? Tom's dazed mind screamed. In God's name, what happened?
He saw the sleek white shape of a Referee's 'copter-jet floating to the pavement beside him. Soon he was being pulled out of his Hornet. Someone was pumping his hand and thumping his back.
"Magnificent," a voice was saying. "Simply magnificent!"
Night. Gay laughter and tinkling glasses. Above all, Dad's voice, strong and proud:
"... and on his very first day, too. He saw the car in his rear radarscope, guessed what the devil was up to. Did he try to escape? No, he stayed right there. When the car closed in for the kill, he spun around and turned on all his jets full-blast. The killer never had a chance to get close enough to do his side-swiping. The blast roasted him like a peanut."
Dad put his arm around Tom's shoulder. All eyes seemed upon Tom's bright new crimson fatality ribbon embossed not only with a silver death's-head, but also with a sea-blue Circle of Honor.
Behold the conquering hero. Attila is vanquished and Rome is saved. The Red Knight has been defeated, and the fair princess is mine. That Jap Zero didn't have a chance. A touchdown in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter—not bad, eh?
Dad went on:
"That devil really was a killer. Fellow name of Wilson. Been Driving for six years. Had thirty-three accident ribbons with twenty-one fatalities—not one of them honorable. That Wilson drove for just one purpose: to kill. He met his match in our Tom Rogers."
Applause from Uncle Mack and Aunt Edith and Bill Ackerman and Lou Dorrance—and more important, from young Larry Miles and big Norm Powers and blonde Geraldine Oliver and cute little Sally Peters.
Tom smiled. Not only your friends tonight, Dad. Tonight it's my friends, too. My friends from Western U.
Fame was as unpredictable as the trembling of a leaf, Tom thought, as delicate as a pillar of glass. Yet the yoke of fame rested pleasantly on his shoulders. He had no inclination to dislodge it. And while a fear was still in him, it was now a fragile thing, an egg shell to be easily crushed.
Later Mom came to him. There was a proudness in her features, and yet a sadness and a fear, too. Her eyes held the thoughtful hesitancy of one for whom time and event have moved too swiftly for comprehension.
"Tomorrow's Saturday," she murmured. "There's no school, and no one'll expect you to Drive after what happened today. You'll be staying home for your birthday, won't you, Tom?"
Tom Rogers shook his head. "No," he said wistfully. "Sally Peters is giving a little party over in New Boston. It's the first time anyone like Sally ever asked me anywhere."
"I see," said Mom, as if she really didn't see at all. "You'll take the monorail?"
"No, Mom," Tom answered very softly. "I'm Driving."