Back | Next

Not Responsible!
Park and Lock It!

David Baker was born in the backseat of his parents’ Chevy in the great mechanized lot at mile 1.375 x 1025. “George, we need to stop,” his mother Polly said. “I’m having pains.” She was a week early.

They had been cruising along pretty well at twilight, his father concentrating on getting in another fifty miles before dark, when they were cut off by the big two-toned Mercury and George had to swerve four lanes over into the far right. George and Polly later decided that the near-accident was the cause of the premature birth. They even managed to laugh at the incident in retrospect—they ruefully retold the story many times, so that it was one of the family fables David grew up with—but David always suspected his father pined after those lost fifty miles. In return he’d gotten a son.

“Not responsible! Park and lock it!” the loudspeakers at the tops of the poles in the vast asphalt field shouted, over and over. For a first birth Polly’s labor was surprisingly short, and the robot doctor emerged from the Chevy in the gathering evening with a healthy seven-pound boy. George Baker flipped his cigarette away nervously, the butt glowing as it spun into the night. He smiled.

In the morning George stepped into the bar at the first rest stop, had a quick one, and registered his name: David John Baker. Born 8:15 Standard Westbound Time, June 13 . . .

“What year is it?” George asked the bartender.

“802,701.” The robot smiled benignly. It could not do otherwise.

“802,701.” George repeated it aloud and punched the keys of the terminal. “Eight hundred two thousand, seven hundred and one.” The numbers spun themselves out like a song. Eight-oh-two, seven-oh-one.

David’s mother had smiled weakly, reclining in the passenger’s seat, when they’d started again. Her smile had never been strong. David slept on her breast.

Much later Polly told David what a good baby he’d been, not like his younger sister Caroline, who had the colic. David took satisfaction in that: he was the good one. It made the competition between him and Caroline even more intense. But that was later. As a baby David slept to the steady thrumming of the V-8 engine, the gentle rocking of the car. He was cooed at by the android attendants at the camps where they pulled over at the end of the day. His father would chat with the machine that came over to check the odometer and validate their mileage card. George would tell about any of the interesting things that had happened on the road—and he always seemed to have something—while Polly fixed supper at one of the grills and the ladies from the other cars sat around in a circle in front of the komfy kabins and talked about their children, their husbands, about their pregnancies and how often they got to drive. David sat on Polly’s lap or played with the other kids. Once past the toddler stage he followed his dad around and watched, a little scared, as the greasy self-assured robots busied themselves about the service station. They were large and composed. The young single drivers tried hard to compete with their mechanical self-containment. David hung on everything his dad said.

“The common driving man,” George Baker said, hands on the wheel, “the good average driver—doesn’t know his asshole from a tailpipe.”

Polly would draw David to her, as if to blot out the words. “George—”

“All right. The kid will know whether you want him to or not.”

But David didn’t know, and they wouldn’t tell him. That was the way of parents: they never told you even when they thought they were explaining everything, and so David was left to wonder and learn as best he could. He watched the land speed by long before he had words to say what he saw; he listened to his father tell his mother what was wrong and right with the world. And the sun set every night at the other end of that world, far ahead of them still, beyond the gas stations and the wash-and-brush-up buildings and the quietly deferential androids that always seemed the same no matter how far they’d gone that day, Westbound.

When David was six he got to sit on George’s lap, hold the wheel in his hands, and “drive the car.” With what great chasms of anticipation and awe did he look forward to those moments! His father would say suddenly, after hours of driving in silence, “Come sit on my lap, David. You can drive.”

Polly would protest feebly that he was too young. It was dangerous. David would clamber into his dad’s lap and grab the wheel. How warm it felt, how large, and how far apart he had to put his hands! The indentations on the back were too wide for his fingers, so that two of his fit into the space meant for one adult’s. George would move the seat up and scrunch his thin legs together so that David could see over the hood of the car. His father operated the pedals and gearshift, and most of the time he kept his left hand on the wheel too—but then he would slowly take it away and David would be steering all by himself. His heart had beaten fast. At those moments the car had seemed so large. The promise and threat of its speed had been almost overwhelming. He knew that by a turn of the wheel he could be in the high-speed lane; he knew, even more amazingly, that he held in his hands the potential to steer them off the road, into the gully, and death. The responsibility was great, and David took it seriously. He didn’t want to do anything foolish, he didn’t want to make George think him any less a man. He knew his mother was watching. Whether she had love or fear in her eyes he could not know, because he couldn’t take his eyes from the road to see. When David was seven there was a song on the radio that Polly sang to him, “We all drive on.” That was his song. David sang it back to her, and his father laughed and sang it too, badly, voice hoarse and off-key, not like his mother, whose voice was sweet. “We all drive on,” they sang together.

“You and me and everyone

Never ending, just begun

Driving, driving on.”

“Goddamn right we drive on,” George said. “Goddamn pack of maniacs.”

David remembered clearly the first time he became aware of the knapsack and the notebook. It was one evening after they’d eaten supper and were waiting for Polly to get the cabin ready for bed. George went around to the trunk to check the spare, and this time he took a green knapsack out and, in the darkness near the edge of the campground, secretively opened it.

“Watch, David, and keep your mouth shut about what you see.”

David watched.

“This is for emergencies.” George, one by one, set the things on the ground: first a rolled oilcloth, which he spread out, then a line of tools, then a gun and boxes of bullets, a first-aid kit, some packages of crackers and dried fruit, and some things David didn’t know. One thing had a light and a thick wire and batteries.

“This is a metal detector, David. I made it myself.” George took a black book from the sack. “This is my notebook.” He handed it to David. It was heavy and smelled of the trunk.

“Maps of the Median, and—”

“George!” Polly’s voice was a harsh whisper, and David jumped a foot. She grabbed his arm. George looked exasperated and a little guilty—though David did not identify his father’s reaction as guilt until he thought about it much later. He was too busy trying to avoid the licking he thought was coming. His mother marched him back to the cabin after giving George her best withering gaze.

“But Mom—”

“To sleep! Don’t puzzle yourself about things you aren’t meant to know, young man.”

David puzzled himself. At times the knapsack and the notebook filled his thoughts. His father would give him a curious glance and tantalizingly vague answers whenever he asked about them—safely out of earshot of Polly.

Shortly after that Caroline was born. This time the Bakers were not caught by surprise, and Caroline came into the world at the hospital at mile 1.375 x 1025, where they stopped for three whole days for Polly’s lying in. Nobody stopped for three whole days, for anything. David was impatient. They’d never get anywhere waiting, and the androids in the hospital were all boring, and the comic books in the motionless waiting room he had all read before.

This time the birth was a hard one. George sat hunched forward in a plastic chair, and David paced around, stomping on the cracks in the linoleum. He leaned on the windowsill and watched all the cars fly by on the highway, Westbound, and in the distance, beyond the barbed wire, sentry towers and minefields, mysterious, ever unattainable—Eastbound.

After what seemed like a very long time, the white porcelain doctoroid came back to them. George stood up as soon as he appeared. “Is she—”

“Both fine. A little girl. Seven pounds, five ounces,” the doctoroid reported, grille gleaming.

George didn’t say anything then, just sat down in the chair. After a while he came over to David, put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and they both watched the cars moving by, the light of the bright mid-summer’s sun flashing off the windshields as they passed, blinding them.

David was nine when they bought the Nash. It had a big chrome grille that stretched like a bridge across the front, the vertical bars bulging outward in the middle, so that, with the headlights, the car looked to be grinning a big nasty grin.

* * *

David went with George through the car lot while Polly sat with Caroline in the lounge of the dealership. He watched his father dicker with the bow-tied salesdroid. George acted as if he seriously meant to buy a new car, when in fact his yearly mileage average would entitle him to no more than a second-hand, second-rank sedan, unless he intended for them all to go hungry. He wouldn’t have done that, however. Whatever else Polly might say about her husband, she could not say he wasn’t a good provider.

“So why don’t you show us a good used car,” George said, running his hand through his thinning hair. “Mind you, don’t show us any piece of junk.”

The salesdroid was, like his brothers, enthusiastic and unreadable. “Got just the little thing for you, Mr. Baker—a snappy number. C’mon,” it said, rolling down toward the back of the lot.

“Here you go.” It opened the door of the blue Nash with its amazingly dexterous hand. David’s father got in. “Feel that genuine vinyl upholstery. Not none of your cheap plastics, that’ll crack in a week of direct sun.” The salesdroid winked its glassy eye at David. “Hop in, son. See how you like it.”

David started to, then saw the look of warning on George’s face.

“Let’s have a look at the engine,” George said.

“Righto.” The droid rolled around the fat front fender, reached through the grille, and tripped the latch. The engine was clean as a whistle, the cylinder heads painted cherry red, the spark plug leads numbered for easy changes. It was like the pictures out of David’s school books.

The droid started up the Nash; the motor gave out a rumble and vibrated ever so slightly. David smelled the clean tang of evaporating gasoline.

“Only one owner,” the droid said, volume turned up now so it could be heard over the sound of the engine.

George looked uncertain.

“How much?”

“Book says it’s worth 200,000 validated miles. You can drive her out, with your Chevy in trade, for . . . let me calculate . . . 174,900.”

Just then David noticed something in the engine compartment. On either side over the wheel wells there were cracks in the metal that had been painted over so you could only see them from the reflection of the sunlight where the angle of the surface changed. That was where the shocks connected up with the car’s body.

He tugged at his father’s sleeve. “Dad,” he said, pointing.

George ran a hand over the metal. He looked serious. David thought he was going to get mad. Instead he straightened up and smiled.

“How much did you say?”

The android stood stock-still. “150,000 miles.”

“But Dad—”

“Shut up, David,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Sixty. 100,000. And you reweld those wheel wells before we drive it an inch.”

That was how they bought the Nash. The first thing George said when they were on their way again was, “Polly, that boy of ours is smart as a whip. The shocks were about to rip through the bodywork, and we’d of been scraping down the highway with our nose to the ground like a basset. David, you’re a born driver, or else too smart to waste yourself on it.”

David didn’t quite follow that, but it made him a little more content to move into the backseat. At first he resented it that Caroline had taken his place in the front. She got all the attention, and David only got to sit and look out at where they had been, or what they were going by, never getting a good look at where they were going. If he leaned over the back of the front seat, his father would say, “Quit breathing down my neck, David. Sit down and behave yourself. Do your homework.”

After a while he wouldn’t have moved into the front if they’d asked him to: that was for babies. Instead he watched raptly out the left-side window for fleeting glimpses of Eastbound, wondering always about what it was, how it got there, and about the no-man’s land and the people they said had died trying to cross. He asked George about it, and that started up the biggest thing they were ever to share together.

“They’ve told you about Eastbound in school, have they?”

“They told us we can’t go there. Nobody can.”

“Did they tell you why?”


His father laughed. “That’s because they don’t know why! Isn’t that incredible, David? They teach a thing in school, and everybody believes it, and nobody knows why or even thinks to ask. But you wonder, don’t you? I’ve seen it.”

He did wonder. It scared him that his father would talk about it.

“Men are slipstreamers, David. Did you ever see a car follow close behind a big truck to take advantage of the windbreak to make the driving easier? That’s the way people are. They’ll follow so close they can’t see six inches beyond their noses, as long as it makes things easier. And the schools and the teachers are the biggest windbreaks of all. You remember that. Do you remember the knapsack in the trunk?”

“George,” Polly said.

“Be quiet, Polly. The boy’s growing up.” To David he said, “You know what it’s for. You know what’s inside.”

“To go across . . .” David hesitated, his heart leaping.

“To cross the Median! We can do it. We don’t have to be like everybody else, and when the time comes, when we need to get away the most, when things are really bad—we can do it! I’m prepared to do it.”

Polly tried to shush him, and it became an argument. But David was thrilled at the new world that had opened. His father was a criminal—but he was right! From then on they worked on the preparations together. They would have long talks on what they would do and how they would do it. David drew maps on graph paper, and sometimes he and George would climb to the highest spot available by the roadside at the day’s end, to puzzle out once again the defenses of the Median.

“Don’t tell your mother about this,” George would say. “You know she doesn’t understand.”

Each morning, before they had gone very far at all, David’s father would stop the car and let David out at a bus stop to be picked up by the school bus, and eight hours later the bus would let him out again some hundreds of miles farther west. Soon his parents would be there to pick him up, if they were not there already when he got off with the other kids. More than once David overheard drivers at the camps in the evening complaining about how having kids really slowed a man down in his career, so he’d never get as far as he would have if he’d had the sense to stay single. Whenever some young man whined about waiting around half his life for a school bus, George Baker would only light another cigarette and be very quiet.

In school David learned the principles of the internal combustion engine. Internal Combustion was his favorite class. Other boys and girls would shoot paperclips at each other over the backseats of the bus, or fall asleep staring out the windows, but David sat in a middle seat (he would not move to the front and be accused of being teacher’s pet) and, for the most part, paid good attention. His favorite textbook was one they used both in history and social studies; it had a blue cloth cover. The title, pressed into the cover in faded yellow, was Heroes of the Road. On the bus, during recess, David and the other boys argued about who was the greatest driver of them all.

To most of them Alan “Lucky” Totter was the only driver. He’d made 10,220,796 miles when he tried to pass a Winnebago on the right at 85 miles per hour in a blinding snowstorm. Some people thought that showed a lack of judgment, but Lucky Totter didn’t give a damn for judgment, or anything else. Totter was the classic lone-wolf driver. Born to respectable middle-class parents who drove a Buick with holes in its sides, Totter devoured all he could find out about cars. At the age of thirteen he deserted his parents at a rest stop at mile 1.375 x 1025, hot-wired a Bugatti-Smith that the owner had left unlocked, and made 8,000 miles before the Trooperbots brought him to justice. After six months in the paddy wagon he came out with a new resolve. He worked for a month at a service station at jobs even the androids would shun, getting nowhere. At the end of that time he’d rebuilt a junked Whippet roadster and was on his way, hell-bent for leather. Every extra mile he drove he plowed back into financing a newer and faster car. Tirelessly, it seemed, Totter kept his two-tones to the floorboards, and the pavement fairly flew beneath his wheels. No time for a wife or family, 1,000 miles a day was his only satisfaction, other than the quick comforts of any of the fast women he might pick up who wanted a chance to say they’d been for a ride with Lucky Totter. The solitary male to the end, it was a style guaranteed to earn him the hero worship of boys all along the world.

But Totter was not the all-time mileage champion. That pinnacle of glory was held by Charles Van Huyser, at a seemingly unassailable 11,315,201 miles. It was hard to see how anyone could do better, for Van Huyser was the driver who had everything: good reflexes, a keen eye, iron constitution, wherewithal, and devilish good looks. He was a child of the privileged classes, scion of the famous Van Huyser drivers, and had enjoyed all the advantages the boys on a middle-lane bus like David’s would never see. His father had been one of the premier drivers of his generation, and had made more than seven million miles himself, placing him a respectable twelfth on the all-time list. Van Huyser rode the most exclusive of preparatory buses, and was outfitted from the beginning with the best made-to-order Mercedes that android hands could fashion. He was in a lane by himself. Old-timers would tell stories of the time they had been passed by the Van Huyser limo and the distinguished, immaculately tailored man who sat behind the wheel. Perhaps he had even tipped his homburg as he flashed by. Spartan in his daily regimen, invariably kind, if a little condescending, to lesser drivers, he never forgot his position in society, and died at the respectable age of eighty-six, peacefully, in the private washroom of the Drivers’ Club dining room at mile 1.375 x 1025.

There were scores of others in Heroes of the Road, all of their stories inspiring, challenging, even puzzling. There was Ailene Stanford, at six-million-plus miles the greatest female driver ever, carmaker and mother and credit to her sex. And Reuben Jefferson, and the Kosciusco brothers, and the mysterious trance driving of Akira Tedeki. The chapter “Detours” held frightening tales of abject failure, and of those who had wasted their substance and their lives trying to cross the Median.

“You can’t believe everything you read, David,” George told him. “They’ll tell you Steve Macready was a great man.”

It was like George Baker to make statements like that and then never explain what he meant. It got on David’s nerves sometimes, though he figured his dad did it because he had more important things on his mind.

But Steve Macready was David’s personal favorite. Macready was third on the all-time list behind Van Huyser and Totter, at 8,444,892 miles. Macready hadn’t had the advantages of Van Huyser, and he scorned the reckless irresponsibility of Totter. He was an average man, to all intents and purposes, and he showed just how much an average guy could do if he had the willpower. Born into an impoverished hundred-mile-a-day family that couldn’t seem to keep a car on the road three days in a row before it broke down, one of eight brothers and sisters, Macready studied quietly when he could, watched the ways of the road with an intelligent eye, and helped his father and mother keep the family rolling. Compelled to leave school early because the family couldn’t keep up with the slowest of school buses, he worked on his own, managed to get hold of an old junker that he put on the road, and set off at the age of sixteen, taking two of his sisters with him. In those first years his mileage totals were anything but spectacular. But he kept plugging away, taking care of his sisters, seeing them married off to two respectable young drivers along the way, never hurrying. At the comparatively late age of thirty he married a simple girl from a family of Ford owners and fathered four children. He saw to his boys’ educations. He drove on, making a steady 500 miles a day, and 200 on each Saturday and Sunday. He did not push himself or his machine; he did not lag behind. Steadiness was his watchword. His sons grew up to be fine drivers themselves, always ready to lend the helping hand to the unfortunate motorist. When he died at the age of eighty-two, survived by his wife, children, eighteen grandchildren, and twenty-six great-grandchildren, drivers all, he had become something of a legend in his own quiet time. Steve Macready.

George Baker never said much when David talked about the arguments the kids had over Macready and the other drivers. When he talked about his own youth, he would give only the most tantalizing hints of the many cars he had driven before he picked up Polly, of the many places he’d stopped and people he’d ridden with. David’s grandfather had been something of an inventor, he gathered, and had modified his pickup with an extra-large tank and a small, efficient engine to get the most mileage for his driving time. George didn’t say much about his mother or brothers, though he said some things that indicated that his father’s plans for big miles never panned out, and about how it was not always pleasant to ride in the back of an open pickup with three brothers and a sick mother.

Eventually David saw that the miles were taking something out of his father. George Baker conversed less with Polly and the kids, and talked more at them.

Once, in a heavy rainstorm after three days of rolling hill country, forests that encroached on the edges of the pavement and fell like a dark wall between Westbound and forgotten Eastbound, the front end of the Nash jumped suddenly into a mad vibration that threw David’s heart into his throat.

“George!” Polly shouted.

“Shut up!” he yelled, trying to steer the bucking car to the roadside.

And then they were stopped, and breathing heavily, and the only sound was the drumming of the rain, the ticking of the car as it settled into motionlessness, and the hissing of the cars that still sped by them over the wet pavement. David’s father, slow and bearlike, opened the door and pulled himself out. David got out too. Under the hood they saw where the rewelded wheel well had given way, and the shock was ripping through the metal. “Shit,” George muttered.

As they stood there a gunmetal gray Cadillac pulled over to stop behind them, its flashing amber signal warm as fire under the leaden skies. A stocky man in an expensive raincoat got out. “Can I help you?” he asked.

George stared at him for a good ten seconds. He looked back at the Cadillac, looked at the man again.

“No thanks,” he said.

The man hesitated, then turned, went back to his car and drove off.

So they had to wait three hours in the broken-down Nash as darkness fell and George trudged off down the highway for the next rest stop. He returned with an android serviceman, and they were towed to the nearest station. David, never patient at his best, grew more and more angry. His father offered not a word of explanation, and his mother tried to keep David from getting after him about his refusing help. But David finally challenged his father on the plain stupidity of his actions, which would mystify any sensible driver.

At first George acted as if he didn’t hear David. Then he exploded.

“Don’t tell me about sensible drivers! I don’t need it, David! Don’t tell me about your Van Huysers, and don’t give me any of that Steve Macready crap, either. Your Van Huysers never did anything for the common driving man, despite all their extra miles. Nobody gives it away. That’s just the way this road works.”

“What about Macready?” David asked. He didn’t understand what his father was talking about. You didn’t have to run someone else down in order to be right. “Look at what Macready did.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” George said. “You get older, but you still think like a kid. Macready sucked up to every tinman on the road. I wouldn’t stoop so low as that. Half the time he left his wife drive! They don’t tell you about that in that damn school, do they?

“Wake up and look at this road the way it is, David. People will use you like a chamois if you don’t. Take my word for it. Damn it! If I could just get a couple of good months out of this heap and get back on my feet. A couple of good months!” He laughed scornfully.

It was no use arguing with George when he was in that mood. David shut up, inwardly fuming.

“Follow the herd!” George yelled. “That’s all people ever do. Never had an original thought in their life.”

“George, you don’t need to shout at the boy,” Polly said.

“Shout! I’m not shouting!” he shouted. George looked at her as if she were a hitchhiker. “Why don’t you shut up. The boy and I were just having an intelligent conversation. A fat lot you know about it.” He gripped the wheel as if he meant to grind it into powder. A deadly silence ensued.

“I need to stop,” he said a couple of miles later, pulling off the road into a bar and grill.

They sat in the car, ears ringing.

“I’m hungry,” Caroline said.

“Let’s get something to eat, then.” Polly leapt at the opportunity to do something normal. “Come on, David. Let’s go in.”

“You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.”

After they left David stared out the car window for a while. He reached under the seat and took out the notebook, which he had moved there a long time before. The spine was almost broken through now, with some of the leaves loose and water-stained. The paper was worn with writing and rewriting. David leafed through the sketches of watchtowers, the maps, the calculations. In the margin of page six his father had written, in handwriting so faded now that it was like the pale voice of years speaking, from far away, “Keep your ass down. Low profile.”

* * *

David was sixteen. His knees were crowded by the back of the car’s front seat, and he stared sullenly out the window at the rolling countryside and the gathering night.

Caroline, having just concluded her fight with him with a belligerent “Oh, yeah!” was leaning forward, her forearms flat against the top of the front seat, her chin resting on them as she stared grimly ahead. Polly was knitting a cover for the box of Kleenex that rested on the dashboard, muffling the radio speaker.

“I’m tired,” George said. “I’m going to stop here for a quick one.” He pulled the ancient Nash over into the exit lane, downshifted, and the car lurched forward more slowly, the engine rattling in protest of the increased rpms. David could have done it better himself.

They pulled into the parking lot of Fast Ed’s Bar and Grill. “You go back and order a fish fry,” George said, slamming the car door and turning his back on them. Polly put aside the knitting, picked up her purse, and took them in the side door to the dining room. There was no one else there, but they could hear the TV and the loud conversations from the front. After a while a waitress robot rolled back to them. Its porcelain finish was chipped, and the hands were stained rusty brown, like an old bathtub.

They ordered, the food came, and they ate. Still George did not return from the bar.

“Go get your father, David,” his mother said. He could tell she was mad.

“I’ll go, Ma,” Caroline said.

“Stay still! It’s bad enough he takes us to his gin mills, without you becoming a barfly’s pet. Go ahead, David.”

David went. His father was sitting at the far end of the bar, near the windows that faced the highway. The late afternoon sun gleamed along the polished wood, glinted harshly from the bottles racked on the shelves behind it, turned the mirror against the wall and the brass spigots of the taps into fire. George Baker was talking loudly with two other middle-aged drivers. His legs looked amazingly scrawny as he perched on the stool. Suddenly David was very angry.

“Are you going to come and eat?” he demanded.

George turned to him, his sloppy good humor stiffening to ire.

“What do you want?”

“We’re eating. Mom’s waiting.”

He leaned over to the man on the next stool. “See what I mean?” he said. To David he said, much more boldly, “Go and eat. I’m not hungry.” He picked up his shot, downed it in one swallow, and took another draw on the beer setup.

Rage and humiliation burned in David. He did not recognize the man at the bar as his father—and then, shuddering, he did.

“Are you coming?” David could hardly speak. The other men at the bar were quiet now. Only the television continued to babble.

“Go away,” his father said.

David wanted to kick over the stool and see him sprawled on the floor. Instead he turned and walked stiffly back to the dining room, past the table where his mother and sister sat. He stalked out to the lot, slamming the screen door behind him. He stood looking at the beat-up Nash in the red-and-white light of Fast Ed’s sign. The sign buzzed, and night was coming, and clouds of insects swarmed around the neon in the darkness. A hundred yards away, on the highway, the drivers had their lights on, fanning before them. The air smelled of exhaust.

He couldn’t go back into the bar. He would never step back into a place like that again. The world seemed all at once immensely old, immensely cheap, immensely tawdry. David looked over his shoulder at the vast woods that started just beyond the back of Fast Ed’s. Then he walked to the front of the lot and stared across the highway toward the distant lights that marked Eastbound. How very far away they seemed.

David went back to the car and got the knapsack out of the trunk. He stepped over the rail at the edge of the lot, crossed the gully beside the road, and waiting for his chance, dashed across the twelve lanes of Westbound to the Median. A hundred yards ahead of him lay the beginning of no-man’s land. Beyond that, where those distant lights swept by in their retrograde motion—what?

But he would never get into a car with George Baker again.

* * *

There were three levels of defenses between Westbound and Eastbound, or so they had surmised. The first was biological, the second was mechanical, and the third and most important, psychological.

As David moved farther from the highway the ground, which was more or less level near the shoulders, grew uneven. The field was unmowed, thick with nettles and coarse grass, and in the increasing darkness he stumbled more than once. Because the land sloped downward as he advanced, the lights ahead of him became obscured by the foliage.

He thought once that he heard his name called above the faint rushing of the cars behind him, but when he turned he could see nothing but Westbound. It seemed remarkably far away already. His progress became slower. He knew there were snakes in the open fields. The mines could not be far ahead. He could be in the minefield at that very moment.

He stopped, heart racing. Suddenly he knew he was in a minefield, and his next step would blow him to pieces. He saw the shadow of the first line of barbed wire ahead of him, and for the first time he considered going back. But the thought of his father and his mother stopped him. They would be glad to take him back and smother him.

David crouched, swung the pack from his shoulder, and took out the metal detector. Sweeping it a few inches above the ground in front of him, he crawled forward on his hands and knees. It was slow going. There was something funny about the air: he didn’t smell anything but field and earth—no people, no rubber, no gasoline. He eyed the nearest watchtower, where he knew infrared scanners swept the Median and automatic rifles nosed about incuriously. Whenever the light in his palm went red, David slid slowly to one side or the other and went on. Once he had to flatten himself suddenly to the earth as some object—animal or search mech—rustled through the dry grass not ten yards away. He waited for the bullet in his neck.

He came to the first line of barbed wire. It was rusty and overgrown. Weeds had used it for a trellis, and when David clipped through the wire the overgrowth held the gap closed. He had to tear the opening wider with his hands, and the cheap work gloves he wore were next to no protection.

He lay in the dark, sweating. He would never last at this rate. He decided to take the chance of moving ahead in short, crouching runs, ignoring the mines. For a while it seemed to ease the pressure, until his foot slipped on some metal object and he leapt away, crying aloud, waiting for the blast that didn’t come. Crouched in the grass, panting, he saw that he had stepped on a hubcap.

David began to wonder why the machines hadn’t spotted him yet. He was far beyond the point any right-thinking driver might pass. Then he realized that he could hear nothing of either Westbound or Eastbound. He had no idea how long it had been since he’d left the parking lot, but the gibbous moon was coming down through the clouds. David wondered what his mother had done after he’d taken the pack and left; he could imagine his father’s drunken amazement as she told him. Maybe even Caroline was worried. He was far beyond them now. He was getting away, amazed at how easy it was, once you made up your mind, amazed at how few had the guts to try it. If they’d even told him the truth.

A perverse idea hit him: maybe the teachers and drivers, like sheep huddled in their trailer beds, had never tried to see what lay in the Median. Maybe all the servodefenses had rotted like the barbed wire, and it was only the pressure of their dead traditions that kept people glued to their westward course. Suddenly twelve lanes, which had seemed a whole world to him all his life, shrank to the merest thread. Who could say what Eastbound might be? Who could predict how much better men had done for themselves there? Maybe it was the Eastbounders who had built the roads, who had created the defenses and myths that kept them all penned in filthy Nashes, rolling west.

David laughed aloud. He stood up. He slung the pack over his shoulder again, and this time boldly struck out for the new world.


A figure stood erect before him, and a blinding light shone from its head. The confidence drained from David instantly; he dropped to the ground.

“Please stand.” David was pinned in the center of the search beam. He reached into the knapsack for the revolver. “This is a restricted area, intruder,” the machine said. “Please return to your assigned role.”

David blinked in the glare. He could see nothing of the thing’s form. “Role?”

“I am sure that the first thing they taught you was that entry into this area is forbidden. Am I right?”

“What?” David had never heard this kind of talk from a machine.

“Your elders have said that you should not come here. That is one very good reason why you should not be here. I’m sure you’ll agree. The requests of the society that, in a significant way, created us, if not unreasonable, ought to be given considerable thought before we reject them. This is the result of evolution. The men and women who went before you had to concern themselves with survival in order to live long enough to bear the children who eventually became the present generation. Their rules are engineering-tested. Such experience, let alone your intelligence working within the framework of evolution, ought not to be lightly discarded. We are not born into a vacuum. Am I right?”

David wasn’t sure the gun was going to do him any good. “I guess so. I never thought about it.”

“Precisely. Think about it.”

David thought. “Wait a minute! How do I know people made the rules? I don’t have any proof. I never see people making rules now.”

“On the contrary, intruder, you see it every day. Every act a person performs is an act of definition. We create what we are from moment to moment. The future before us is merely the emptiness of time that does not exist without events to fill it. The greatest of changes is possible: in theory you are just as likely to turn into an aimless collection of molecules in this next instant as you are to remain a human being. That is, unless you believe that human beings are fated and possess no free will . . .”

“People have free will.” David knew that, if he knew anything. “And they ought to use it.”

“That’s right.” The machine’s light was as steady as the sun. “You wouldn’t be in a forbidden area if people did not have free will. You yourself, intruder, are a proof of mankind’s freedom.”

“Okay. Now let me go by—”

“So we have established that human beings have free will. We will assume that they follow rules. Now, having free will, and assuming that by some mischance one of these rules is distasteful to them—we leave aside for the moment who made the rule—then one would expect people to disobey it. They need not even have an active purpose to disobey; in the course of a long enough time many people will break this burdensome rule for the best—or worst—of reasons. The more unacceptable the rule, the greater the number of people who will discard it at one time or another. They will, as individuals or groups, consciously or unconsciously, create a new rule. This is change through human free will. So, even if the rules were not originated by humans, in time change would ensue given the merits of the ‘system,’ as we may call it, and the system will become human-created. My earlier evolutionary argument then follows as the night the day. Am I right?”

If a robot could sound triumphant, this one did.


“So one good reason for doing only what you’re told is that you have the free will to do otherwise. Another good reason is God.”


“The Supreme Being, the Life Force, that ineluctable, undefinable spiritual presence that lies—or perhaps lurks—within the substance of things. The Holy Father, the First—”

“What about him?”

“God doesn’t want you to cross the Median.”

“I bet he doesn’t,” David said sarcastically.

“Have you ever seen an automobile accident?”

The robot was going too fast, and the light made it hard for David to think. He closed his eyes and tried to fight back. “Everybody’s seen accidents. People get killed. Don’t go telling me God killed them because they did something wrong.”

“Don’t be absurd!” the robot said. “You must try to stretch your mind, intruder; this is not some game we’re playing. This is real life. Not only do actions have consequences, but consequences are pregnant with Meaning.

“In the auto accident we have a peculiar sequence of events. The physicist tells us that heat and vibration cause a weakening of the molecular bonds between certain long-chain hydrocarbons that comprise the substance of the tire of a car traveling at sixty miles per hour. The tire blows. As a result of the sudden change in the moment of inertia of this wheel, certain complex analyzable oscillations occur. The car swerves to the left, rolls over six times, tossing its three passengers, a man and two women, about like tomatoes in a blender, and collides with a bridge abutment, exploding into flame. To the scientist, this is a simple cause-and-effect chain. The accident has a rational explanation: the tire blew.”

David felt queasy. His hand, in the knapsack, clutched the gun.

“You see right away what’s wrong with this explanation. It explains nothing. We know the rational explanation is inadequate without having to be able to say how we know. Such knowledge is the doing of God. God and His merciful Providence set the purpose behind the fact of our existence, and is it possible to believe that a sparrow can fall without His holy cognizance and will?”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“What does that matter, intruder?” The thing’s voice now oozed angelic understanding. “Need you believe in gravity for it to be an inescapable fact of your existence? God does not demand your belief; He merely requests that you, of your own inviolate free will and through the undeserved gift of His grace, come to acknowledge and obey Him. Who can understand the mysteries of faith? Certainly not I, a humble mechanism. Knowledge is what matters, and if you open yourself to the currents that flow through the interstices of the material and immaterial universe, that knowledge will be vouchsafed you, intruder. You do not belong here. God knows who you are, and He saw what you did. Am I right?”

David was getting mad. “What has this got to do with car accidents?”

“The auto accident does not occur without the knowledge and permission of the Lord. This doesn’t mean that He is responsible for it. He accepts the responsibility without accepting the Responsibility. This is a mystery.”

“Bull!” David had heard enough talk. It was time to act.

“Be silent, intruder! Where were you when He laid the asphalt of Westbound? Who set up the mileage markers, and who painted the line upon it? On what foundation was its reinforced concrete sunk, and who made the komfy kabins, when the morning stars sang together, and all the droids and servos shouted for joy?”

It was his chance. The machine was still motionless, its mad light trained on him. A mist had sprung from the no-man’s land. Poison gas? He had no gas mask; speed was his only hope. He couldn’t move. He hefted the gun. He felt dizzy, a little numb, steeling himself to move. He had to be stronger than the robot! It was just a machine!

“So that is the second good reason why you should not proceed with your ill-advised adventure,” it droned on. “God is telling you to go back.”

God. Rifles. He had to go! Now! Still he couldn’t move. The fog grew, and its smell was strangely pungent. Once past the robot, who knew what he could find. But the machine’s voice exuded self-confidence.

“A third and final good reason why you should return to your assigned role, intruder, is this:

“If you take another step, I will kill you.”

* * *

David woke. He was cold, and he was being shaken by a sobbing man. It was his father.

“Not responsible! Park and lock it!” For the first time in as long as he could remember, David actually heard the crying of the loudspeakers in the parking lot. He struggled to sit up. His mouth tasted like a thousand miles of road grime.

George Baker held his shoulders and looked into his face. He didn’t say anything. He stood up and went to stand by the car. Shakily, he lit a cigarette. David’s mother crouched over him. “David—David, are you all right?”

“What happened?”

“Your father went after you. We didn’t know what happened, and I was so afraid I’d lose both of you—and then he came back carrying you in his arms.”

“Carrying me? That’s ridiculous.” George wasn’t capable of carrying a wheel hub fifty yards. David looked at the potbellied man leaning against the front fender of their car. His father was staring off across the lot. Suddenly David felt ashamed of himself. He didn’t know what it was in his chest striving to express itself, but sitting there in the parking lot at mile 1.375 x 1025, looking at the middle-aged man who was his father, he began to cry.

George never said a word to David after that day about how he had managed to follow his son into the Median, about what a struggle it must have been to make himself do that, about how and where he had found the boy, and how he had managed to bring him back, or about what it all meant to him. David never told his father about the robot and what it had said. It was all a little unreal to him. The boy who had stood there, desperately trying to get somewhere else, and the words the robot had spoken, all seemed terribly remote, as if the whole incident were something he had read about. It was a fantasy that could not have occurred in the real world of pavement and gasoline.

Father and son did not speak about it. They didn’t say anything much at first, as they tentatively felt out the boundaries of what seemed to be a new relationship. Even Caroline recognized that a change had taken place, and she didn’t taunt David the way she had before. Unstated was the fact that David was no longer a boy.

A month later and many thousand miles farther along, George nervously broached the subject of buying David a car. It was a shock for David to hear that, and he knew they could hardly afford it, but he also knew there was a rightness to it. And so they found themselves in the lot of Gears MacDougal’s New and Used Autos.

George was too loud, too jocular. “How about this Chevy, David? A Chevy’s a good driving man’s car.” He looked embarrassed.

David got down and felt a tire. “She’s got good rubber on her.”

The salesdroid was rolling up to greet them as George opened the hood of the Chevy. “Looks pretty clean,” he said.

“They clean them all up.”

“They sure do. You can’t trust them as far as you’d . . . ah, hello.”

“Good morning,” the droid said, coming to rest beside them. “That’s just the little thing for you. One owner, and between you and me, he didn’t drive her too hard. He wasn’t much of a driver.”

George looked at the machine soberly. “Is that so.”

“That is so, sir.”

“My son’s buying this car, not me,” George said suddenly, loudly, as if shaking away the dust of his thoughts. “You should talk to him. And don’t try to put anything over on him; he knows his stuff and . . . well, you just talk to him, not me, see?”

“Certainly, sir.” The droid rolled between them and told David about the Chevy’s V-8. David hardly listened. He watched his father step quietly to the side and light a cigarette. George stood with Polly and Caroline and looked ill at ease, quieter than David could ever remember. As the robot took David around the car, pointing out its extras, it came to him just what his father was: not a strong man, not a special man, not a particularly smart man. He was the same man he had been when David had sat on his lap years before; he was the same man who had taken him on his strolls around the rest stops so many times. He was the drunk who had slouched on the stool in Fast Ed’s. He was a good driving man.

“I’ll take it,” David said, breaking off the salesdroid in mid-sentence.

“Righto,” the machine said, its hard smile unvarying. It did not miss a beat. Within seconds a hard copy of the title had emerged from the slot in its chest. Within minutes the papers had been signed, the mileage validated and subtracted from George Baker’s yearly total, and David stood beside his car. It was not a very good car to start out with, but many had started with less, and it was the best his father could do. Polly hugged him and cried. Caroline reached up and kissed him on the cheek; she cried too. George shook his hand, and did not seem to want to let go.

“Remember now, take it easy for the first thousand or so, until you get the feel of her. Check the oil, see if it burns oil. I don’t think it will. It’s got a good spare, doesn’t it?”

“It does, Dad.”

“Good. That’s good.” George stood silent for a moment, looking up at his son. The day was bright, and the breeze disarrayed the thinning hair he had combed over his bald spot. “Good-bye, David. Maybe we’ll see you on the road?”

“Sure you will.”

David got into the Chevy and turned the key in the ignition. The motor started immediately and breathed its low and steady rumble. The seat was very hot against his back. The windshield was spotless, and beyond the nose of the car stretched the access ramp to Westbound. The highway swarmed with the cars that were moving while they dawdled there still. David put the car in gear, stepped slowly on the accelerator, released the clutch, and moved smoothly down the ramp, gathering speed. He shifted up, moving faster, and then quickly once again. The force of the wind streaming in through the window increased from a breeze to a gale, and its sound became a continuous buffeting as it whipped his hair about his ear. Flicking the turn signal, David merged into the flow of traffic, the sunlight flashing off the hood ornament that led him on toward the distant horizon, just out of his reach, but attainable he knew, as he pressed his foot to the accelerator, hurrying on past mile 1.375 x 1025.

Back | Next