"This is Five Six, St. Louis," he broke in, "acknowledged. Our position is mile marker 970...."
Kelly had been glued to the video monitors since the first of the bulletin. Suddenly she screamed and banged Ben on the shoulder. "There they are. There they are," she cried, pointing at the blue lane monitor.
Martin took one look at the white-topped car cutting through traffic in the blue lane and slammed Beulah into high. The safety cocoons slammed shut almost on the first notes of the bull horn. Trapped in the shower, Clay was locked into the stall dripping wet as the water automatically shut off with the movement of the cocoon.
"I have them in sight," Ben reported, as the patrol car lifted on its air pad and leaped forward. "They're in the blue five miles ahead of me and cutting over to the yellow. I estimate their speed at two twenty-five. I am in pursuit."
Traffic gave way as Car 56 hurtled the divider into the blue.
The radio continued to snap orders.
"Cars 112, 206, 76 and 93 establish roadblocks at mile marker crossover 1032. Car 82 divert all blue and yellow to green and white."
Eight Two was one hundred fifty miles ahead but at three-hundred-mile-an-hour speeds, 82's team was very much a part of the operation. This would clear the two high-speed lanes if the suspect car hadn't been caught sooner.
"Cars 414, 227 and 290 in NAT-26-East, move into the yellow to cover in case our pigeon decides to fly the median." The controller continued to move cars into covering positions in the area on all crossovers and turnoffs. The sweating dispatcher looked at his lighted map board and mentally cursed the lack of enough units to cover every exit. State and local authorities already had been notified in the event the fugitives left the thruways and tried to escape on a state freeway.
In Car 56, Ben kept the patrol car roaring down the blue lane through the speeding westbound traffic. The standard emergency signal was doing a partial job of clearing the path, but at those speeds, driver reaction times weren't always fast enough. Ahead, the fleeing suspect car brushed against a light sedan, sending it careening and rocking across the lane. The driver fought for control as it swerved and screeched on its tilting frame. He brought it to a halt amid a haze of blue smoke from burning brakes and bent metal. The white over green Travelaire never slowed, fighting its way out of the blue into the ultra-high yellow and lighter traffic. Ben kept Beulah in bulldog pursuit.
The sideswipe ahead had sent other cars veering in panic and a cluster inadvertently bunched up in the path of the roaring patrol car. Like a flock of hawk-frightened chickens, they tried to scatter as they saw and heard the massive police vehicle bearing down on them. But like chickens, they couldn't decide which way to run. It was a matter of five or six seconds before they parted enough to let the patrol car through. Ben had no choice but to cut the throttle and punch once on the retrojets to brake the hurtling patrol car. The momentary drops in speed unlocked the safety cocoons and in an instant, Clay had leaped from the shower stall and sped to the cab. Hearing, rather than seeing his partner, Martin snapped over his shoulder, "Unrack the rifles. That's the car." Clay reached for the gun rack at the rear of the cab.
Kelly took one look at the young trooper and jumped for the doorway to the galley. A second later she was back. Without a word, she handed the nude Ferguson a dangling pair of uniform coveralls. Clay gasped, dropped the rifles and grabbed the coveralls from her hand and clutched them to his figure. His face was beet-red. Still without speaking, Kelly turned and ran back to her dispensary to be ready for the next acceleration.
Clay was into the coveralls and in his seat almost at the instant Martin whipped the patrol car through the hole in the blue traffic and shoved her into high once more.
There was no question about the fact that the occupants of the fugitive car knew they were being pursued. They shot through the crossover into the yellow lane and now were hurtling down the thruway close to the four-hundred-mile-an-hour mark.
Martin had Beulah riding just under three hundred to make the crossover, still ten miles behind the suspect car and following on video monitor. The air still crackled with commands as St. Louis and Washington Control maneuvered other cars into position as the pursuit went westward past other units blocking exit routes.
Clay read aloud the radiodometer numerals as they clicked off a mile every nine seconds. Car 56 roared into the yellow and the instant Ben had it straightened out, he slammed all finger throttles to full power. Beulah snapped forward and even at three hundred miles an hour, the sudden acceleration pasted the car's crew against the back of their cushioned seats. The patrol car shot forward at more than five hundred miles an hour.
The image of the Travelaire grew on the video monitor and then the two troopers had it in actual sight, a white, racing dot on the broad avenue of the thruway six miles ahead.
Clay triggered the controls for the forward bow cannon and a panel box flashed to "ready fire" signal.
"Negative," Martin ordered. "We're coming up on the roadblock. You might miss and hit one of our cars."
"Car 56 to Control," the senior trooper called. "Watch out at the roadblock. He's doing at least five hundred in the yellow and he'll never be able to stop."
Two hundred miles east, the St. Louis controller made a snap decision. "Abandon roadblock. Roadblock cars start west. Maintain two hundred until subject comes into monitor view. Car 56, continue speed estimates of subject car. Maybe we can box him in."
At the roadblock forty-five miles ahead of the speeding fugitives and their relentless pursuer, the four patrol cars pivoted and spread out across the roadway some five hundred feet apart. They lunged forward and lifted up to air-cushion jet drive at just over two hundred miles an hour. Eight pairs of eyes were fixed on video monitors set for the ten-mile block to the rear of the four vehicles.
Beulah's indicated ground speed now edged towards the five hundred fifty mark, close to the maximum speeds the vehicles could attain.
The gap continued to close, but more slowly. "He's firing hotter," Ben called out. "Estimating five thirty on subject vehicle."
Now Car 56 was about three miles astern and still the gap closed. The fugitive car flashed past the site of the abandoned roadblock and fifteen seconds later all four patrol cars racing ahead of the Travelaire broke into almost simultaneous reports of "Here he comes."
A second later, Clay Ferguson yelled out, "There he goes. He's boondocking, he's boondocking."
"He has you spotted," Martin broke in. "He's heading for the median. Cut, cut, cut. Get out in there ahead of him."
The driver of the fugitive car had seen the bulk of the four big patrol cruisers outlined against the slight rise in the thruway almost at the instant he flashed onto their screens ten miles behind them. He broke speed, rocked wildly from side to side, fighting for control and then cut diagonally to the left, heading for the outer edge of the thruway and the unpaved, half-mile-wide strip of landscaped earth that separated the east and westbound segments of NAT-26.
The white and green car was still riding on its airpad when it hit the low, rounded curbing at the edge of the thruway. It hurtled into the air and sailed for a hundred feet across the gently-sloping snow-covered grass, came smashing down in a thick hedgerow of bushes--and kept going.
Car 56 slowed and headed for the curbing. "Watch it, kids," Ben snapped over the intercom, "we may be buying a plot in a second."
Still traveling more than five hundred miles an hour, the huge patrol car hit the curbing and bounced into the air like a rocket boosted elephant. It tilted and smashed its nose in a slanting blow into the snow-covered ground. The sound of smashing and breaking equipment mingled with the roar of the thundering jets, tracks and air drives as the car fought its way back to level travel. It surged forward and smashed through the hedgerow and plunged down the sloping snowbank after the fleeing car.
"Clay," Ben called in a strained voice, "take 'er."
Ferguson's fingers were already in position. "You all right, Ben?" he asked anxiously.
"Think I dislocated a neck vertebra," Ben replied. "I can't move my head. Go get 'em, kid."
"Try not to move your head at all, Ben," Kelly called from her cocoon in the dispensary. "I'll be there the minute we slow down."
A half mile ahead, the fugitive car plowed along the bottom of the gentle draw in a cloud of snow, trying to fight its way up the opposite slope and onto the eastbound thruway.
But the Travelaire was never designed for driving on anything but a modern superhighway. Car 56 slammed through the snow and down to the bottom of the draw. A quarter of a mile ahead of the fugitives, the first of the four roadblock units came plowing over the rise.
The car speed dropped quickly to under a hundred and the cocoons were again retracted. Ben slumped forward in his seat and caught himself. He eased back with a gasp of pain, his head held rigidly straight. Almost the instant he started to straighten up, Kelly flung herself through the cab door. She clasped his forehead and held his head against the back of the control seat.
Suddenly, the fugitive car spun sideways, bogged in the wet snow and muddy ground beneath and stopped. Clay bore down on it and was about two hundred yards away when the canopy of the other vehicle popped open and a sheet of automatic weapons fire raked the patrol car. Only the low angle of the sedan and the nearness of the bulky patrol car saved the troopers. Explosive bullets smashed into the patrol car canopy and sent shards of plastiglass showering down on the trio.
An instant later, the bow cannon on the first of the cut-off patrol units opened fire. An ugly, yellow-red blossom of smoke and fire erupted from the front of the Travelaire and it burst into flames. A second later, the figure of a man staggered out of the burning car, clothes and hair aflame. He took four plunging steps and then fell face down in the snow. The car burning and crackled and a thick funereal pyre of oily, black smoke billowed into the gray sky. It was snowing heavily now, and before the troopers could dismount and plow to the fallen man, a thin layer of snow covered his burned body.
An hour later, Car 56 was again on NAT 26-West, this time heading for Wichita barracks and needed repairs. In the dispensary, Ben Martin was stretched out on a hospital bunk with a traction brace around his neck and a copper-haired medical-surgical patrolwoman fussing over him.
In the cab, Clay peered through the now almost-blinding blizzard that whirled and skirled thick snow across the thruway. Traffic densities were virtually zero despite the efforts of the dragonlike snow-burners trying to keep the roadways clear. The young trooper shivered despite the heavy jacket over his coveralls. Wind whistled through the shell holes in Beulah's canopy and snow sifted and drifted against the back bulkhead.
The cab communications system had been smashed by the gunfire and Clay wore his work helmet both for communications and warmth.
The door to the galley cracked open and Kelly stuck her head in. "How much farther, Clay?" she asked.
"We should be in the barracks in about twenty minutes," the shivering trooper replied.
"I'll fix you a cup of hot coffee," Kelly said. "You look like you need it."
Over the helmet intercom Clay heard her shoving things around in the galley. "My heavens, but this place is a mess," she exclaimed. "I can't even find the coffee bin. That steeplechase driving has got to stop." She paused.
"Clay," she called out, "Have you been drinking in here? It smells like a brewery."
Clay raised mournful eyes to the shattered canopy above him. "My cooking wine" he sighed.
THE COMMON MAN.
by Mack Reynolds
It would, of course, take a trio of Ivory Tower scientists to conceive of tracking down that statistical entity, the Common Man, and testing out an idea on him. And only the Ivory Tower type would predict that egregiously wrongly!
Frederick Braun, M.D., Ph.D., various other Ds, pushed his slightly crooked horn-rims back on his nose and looked up at the two-story wooden house. There was a small lawn before it, moderately cared for, and one tree. There was the usual porch furniture, and the house was going to need painting in another six months or so, but not quite yet. There was a three-year-old hover car parked at the curb of a make that anywhere else in the world but America would have been thought ostentatious in view of the seeming economic status of the householder.
Frederick Braun looked down at the paper in his hand, then up at the house again. He said to his two companions, "By Caesar, I will admit it is the most average-looking dwelling I have ever seen."
Patricia O'Gara said impatiently, "Well, do we or don't we?" Her hair should have been in a pony tail, or bouncing on her shoulders, or at least in the new Etruscan revival style, not drawn back in its efficient bun.
Ross Wooley was unhappy. He scratched his fingers back through his reddish crew cut. "This is going to sound silly."
Patricia said testily, "We've been through all that, Rossie, good heavens."
"Nothing ventured, nothing ..." Braun let the sentence dribble away as he stuffed the paper into a coat pocket, which had obviously been used as a waste receptacle for many a year, and led the way up the cement walk, his younger companions immediately behind.
He put his finger on the doorbell and cocked his head to one side. There was no sound from the depths of the house. Dr. Braun muttered, "Bell out of order."
"It would be," Ross chuckled sourly. "Remember? Average. Here, let me." He rapped briskly on the wooden door jamb. They stood for a moment then he knocked again, louder, saying almost as though hopefully, "Maybe there's nobody home."
"All right, all right, take it easy," a voice growled even as the door opened.
He was somewhere in his thirties, easygoing of face, brownish of hair, bluish of eye and moderately good-looking. His posture wasn't the best and he had a slight tummy but he was a goodish masculine specimen by Mid-Western standards. He stared out at them, defensive now that it was obvious they were strangers. Were they selling something, or in what other manner were they attempting to intrude on his well being? His eyes went from the older man's thin face, to the football hero heft of the younger, then to Patricia O'Gara. His eyes went up and down her figure and became approving in spite of the straight business suit she affected.
He said, "What could I do for you?"
"Mr. Crowley?" Ross said.
"I'm Ross Wooley and my friends are Patricia O'Gara and Dr. Frederick Braun. We'd like to talk to you."
"There's nobody sick here."
Patricia said impatiently, "Of course not. Dr. Braun isn't a practicing medical doctor. We are research biochemists."
"We're scientists," Ross told him, putting it on what he assumed was the man's level. "There's something on which you could help us."
Crowley took his eyes from the girl and scowled at Ross. "Me? Scientists? I'm just a country boy, I don't know anything about science." There was a grudging self-deprecation in his tone.
Patricia took over, a miracle smile overwhelming her air of briskness. "We'd appreciate the opportunity to discuss it with you."
Dr. Braun added the clincher. "And it might be remunerative."
Crowley opened the door wider. "Well, just so it don't cost me nothing." He stepped back for them. "Don't mind the place. Kind of mussed up. Fact is, the wife left me about a week ago and I haven't got around to getting somebody to come in and kind of clean things up."
He wasn't exaggerating. Patricia O'Gara had no pretensions to the housewife's art herself, but she sniffed when she saw the condition of the living room. There was a dirty shirt drooped over the sofa back and beside the chair which faced the TV set were half a dozen empty beer cans. The ashtrays hadn't been emptied for at least days and the floor had obviously not been swept since the domestic tragedy which had sent Mrs. Crowley packing.
Now that the three strangers were within his castle, Crowley's instincts for hospitality asserted themselves. He said, "Make yourself comfortable. Here, wait'll I get these things out of the way. Anybody like a drink? I got some beer in the box, or," he smirked at Patricia, "I got some port wine you might like, not this bellywash you buy by the gallon."
They declined the refreshments, it wasn't quite noon.
Crowley wrestled the chair which had been before the TV set around so that he could sit facing them, and then sat himself down. He didn't get this and his face showed it.
Frederick Braun came to the point. "Mr. Crowley," he said, "did it ever occur to you that somewhere amidst our nearly one hundred million American males there is the average man?"
Crowley looked at him.
Braun cleared his throat and with his thumb and forefinger pushed his glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose. "I suppose that isn't exactly the technical way in which to put it."
Ross Wooley shifted his football shoulders and leaned forward earnestly. "No, Doctor, that's exactly the way to put it." He said to Crowley, very seriously, "We've done this most efficiently. We've gone through absolute piles of statistics. We've...."
"Done what?" Crowley all but wailed. "Take it easy, will you? What are you all talking about?"
Patricia said impatiently, "Mr. Crowley, you are the average American. The man on the street. The Common Man."
He frowned at her. "What'd'ya mean, common? I'm as good as anybody else."
"That's exactly what we mean," Ross said placatingly. "You are exactly as good as anybody else, Mr. Crowley. You're the average man."
"I don't know what the devil you're talking about. Pardon my language, Miss."
"Not at all," Patricia sighed. "Dr. Braun, why don't you take over? We seem to all be speaking at once."
The little doctor began to enumerate on his fingers. "The center of population has shifted to this vicinity, so the average American lives here in the Middle West. Population is also shifting from rural to urban, so the average man lives in a city of approximately this size. Determining average age, height, weight is simple with government data as complete as they are. Also racial background. You, Mr. Crowley, are predominately English, German and Irish, but have traces of two or three other nationalities."
Crowley was staring at him. "How in the devil did you know that?"
Ross said wearily, "We've gone to a lot of trouble."