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On Wheels ? Six-Gun Planet
Two Novels of the Future
By John Jakes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 John Jakes
All rights reserved.
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of mileage."
HE WAS DRIFTING ALONG at 85 mph, just drifting, under the fat Nevada moon that iced the distant mountains, when the radiophone blinked.
The tiny red dashlight went on and off, on and off, slowly, like an injured eye. Billy stared at the spot of color a minute, his mouth tightening up and his mind cooling and coiling. God damn that light. God damn it because there weren't many moments like this in a man's life: alone, quiet, in the bucket of a mother with a big i.c. underhood engine bubbling and muttering and blowing out a thin blueness from the dual exhausts.
He wore neither crash helmet nor belts and, because the Twister was old, an authentic machine from the early '80s when his father had been but a young man, there was a sense of challenge in him hard to express but beautiful to feel: here it was just him, just Billy and lightly padded instrument board and shatterable glass and easy-crinkling hoodmetal between him and the eight empty westbound lanes washed by the moon as they rose toward the ten levels of the Calneva Superstack maybe twenty miles ahead, a concrete temple, a lovely thing, set in a notch of a pass in the mountain.
The red light glowed, went out. Glowed, went out. Billy slapped a control, then dialled too far:
"—the President has announced the lightest casualties thus far in the probing activity in the environs of Peking. The White House said there is no truth to the rumor that the 705th Airpack Infantry has belted in to reinforce the—"
Swearing, Billy fiddled till he got the right wavelength, the intercar.
"Somebody want something?"
"You keeping watch out behind?"
He hadn't been, but he said, "Sure." He explored the rearvision mirror quickly. Where there had been but two sets of headlamps a while ago, he now saw several; too many to count.
His second cousin, Jobe Spoiler, two years his junior, chose to let the obvious lie pass. "They come on at the last interchange," he said. "Don't think it was anything but chance. Still, they're pulling up quick."
Even though there was plenty of cool November night air roaring in through the Twister's open windows, Billy's upper lip grew wet. "They driving mothers, Jobe?"
A second voice, from the second set of headlamps closest behind, came on the link: the lugubrious, always cheering gravel-rasp of old Tal, Colonel Tal, Colonel Talmadge Spoiler, Esq., a hard charger despite his advancing years. Tal was honored in the clan because he'd completed twelve grades of education, and also because nobody knew precisely how he was related to any of them; thus it was presumed that Colonel Tal might be a key, very important, relative of each and every Spoiler, and he was treated accordingly. Colonel Tal answered, "You know them Ramps are too chickenshit to risk an arrest by ever pushin' a mother."
"They're driving their regular turbines," Jobe chimed in. "Oh-oh. There goes the first one past me—"
"Appears like he's heading up your way, Billy boy," said Tal.
"I caught a flash," said Jobe. "I think it's big Lee himself."
"There go the rest of 'em," said Tal. "Two, three—four. I don't recognize a one."
"Except Lee," said Jobe, not happily.
"Yes, right," said Colonel Tal.
Gearing down, sliding through a long banked curve where the eight westbound lanes angled left, and higher, toward the Calneva Superstack, Billy examined the rear mirror again. Suddenly headlights over in one of the eight lanes going the opposite way blinded him. His bowels tightened.
The mammoth turbine van passed, heading into the east on its dozen oversize tires. Commercial vehicle; not a clan hauler. For an instant he'd known the tickle of fear that was part of driving a mother, his own gaudy orange Twister, long after most of the rest of the clan members had gone to sleep in the big lumbering communal vans. There was always the possibility of being hauled in by the Federal Highway Patrol, though not usually this late at night, only a couple of hours before morning; and not usually this far out in Nevada with the finally cooling desert rushing by blank and empty under the piers of the sixteen concrete lanes that headed to the mountains and the Calneva Superstack.
"Chickenshit," Tal said loudly suddenly. Billy flicked eyes to the mirror, saw Tal's mother yaw, veer off to the side one, two, three lanes, nearly impacting the right guardrail before the Colonel corrected. "Those Ramps ain't got an ounce of principle in their bodies."
Billy's eyes got edgy. "He swipe you?"
"Tried. I'm fine. Appears it's you they want. Bad luck you takin' point for our little cruise tonight."
"Never mind," Billy returned, "I've tangled with that Lee before."
"Never raced him, have you?" Jobe said, sounding worried.
"No, never raced him," Billy admitted. "Mostly at clan parties."
Which, on reflection, had never been much fun with any of the Ramps in attendance.
Billy concentrated on the four sets of four headlamps coming up fast—he was down to 80 mph in one of the two middle lanes of the eight, waiting to see their pleasure and humming the theme of The Old Rugged Cross while he waited.
The clans basically trusted each other's essential honor. No communal vans were ever locked—ever. But some clans just naturally got on together especially well, like the Spoilers and the Cloverleafs, while some were so ornery and high-mouthed, nobody cared for them—and the Ramps classified there.
Oh, everyone was always cordial at festive occasions when all the larger vehicles were locked together and rolling alongside. But there was never all-out friendliness toward the Ramps, simply because they most generally looked for trouble. Not sport; trouble. They were always bragging about their reputed blood connection with the Hardchargers, including the terrible, probably legendary demon driver, Big Daddy.
The first of the Ramp turbines pulled up alongside on his left. It was a personal two-seater, the kind a Ramp man and wife would travel in when away from the clan vehicles and out for an evening's festivity. The Ramps favored low, nasty, unadorned turbines with oversize blowholes at the back end and dark metalflake tones for the paint. If this Ramp machine streaking alongside was anything other than black, Billy couldn't tell. He concentrated on steering; the power steering plant in his mother wasn't of the best, being antique, and had to be constantly corrected.
That made this current situation ticklish: the Ramp turbine was edging in, edging in, running nearly hub to hub, so close that there couldn't be a hand's width between the caps. Billy licked his upper lip and kept his head more or less straight front. He wouldn't give the other driver any satisfaction at all. But Billy's eyes moved.
The other driver, the Ramp point man, was in fact Lee. His adenoidal voice came across the radiophone connection, barely audible above the mutter of Billy's engine and the turbine powerplant, "Why, that looks like Billy Spoiler over yonder."
"Believe it is," he said. "That you, Lee?"
"Nobody else. You boys breaking the law again?"
"Guess you could call it that."
"Guess! Hell, Billy, any kid who has to get a cheap thrill driving a gasoline engine isn't doing anything else."
"Listen, it's hard work driving a mother," Billy replied. "It's hard to do what I'm doing right now."
"What you doing, Billy?"
"Holding her steady instead of shoving over and bouncing you off the road."
Lee Ramp's laugh was flat and mean. "You Spoilers are just full of promises. But when it comes to performance—" He said an obscene word with good humor. Or so it sounded.
A pause. The turbine whined. The Twister muttered. Swooping, the eight lanes graded upward more sharply: now the Calneva Superstack couldn't be more than ten miles away, its superhighway radials jutting off from all levels to disappear into tunnels heading through the mountains west, north, and south. Blue lights like ghostly balls floated at the perimeter of every level of the Superstack, which was a glorious big version of the five-level L.A. Stack of decades ago.
Finally Billy said, "What are you boys doing in this part of the woods?"
"Oh, just running and funning some, Billy."
"Thought the Ramps were cruising up in Minnesota."
"You heard the wrong gossip. Listen, this is a lucky thing, us just bumping into you this way. I've got three of my best bunch along tonight." He mentioned three Ramp names, none of which Billy caught because he was suddenly intent on a flare of light on his right: a set of lamps coming up at top speed along a merge-in feeder that would intersect the main lanes in another mile.
Federal? Or just a stopper machine? His whole system was alert, his whole body relating to his mother, to every jounce of the rough old springs and shocks, every instant of hum of the big wide belts he carried on the wheels. The stoppers were far worse than the threat of Ramps; the Ramps at least were competent drivers, clan people, road people. But the unexpected interference of some numbskull from off the highway—some popheaded kid on a high who was accustomed to starting and stopping but unaccustomed to a moonlight run on the California-Nevada border—that was bad news.
Billy kept watching the in-boring lights on the right. "Lucky how, Lee?"
"Why, I was gonna propose a little action."
Lee Ramp's laugh had that edge again. "Through the Superstack flat out."
"The lanes narrow down in there. To four."
"Why, that's right, and there's seven of us. Ought to be a real sport. Or maybe not, being as how those mothers of yours don't keep up so well—"
"I heard that," came Jobe's voice. Jobe had pulled up tight behind Billy, was riding his right rear fender. "We can match you mile for mile. We can match ole Ramps anytime."
Colonel Tal cleared his throat along the connection. "Jobe, you let Billy decide it, he's point man tonight. He'll—" A hair-raising howl of fiberglass wide belts, a clink-spang of old metal, and Billy caught a spew of smoke in the mirror. Colonel Tal veered back to the safe side of his lane. The smoke stopped billowing from under his tires. Tal said, "Lee Ramp?"
"Right here, old buddy."
"You tell these snotmouths you're running with that if they swipe me once more before we figure out what sort of sport we aim to have, I'll blister them off with a bagful of dirty tricks and run their tailpipes up their tailbones. You got that now?"
"I got that," Lee chuckled. "Werty, was that you?"
"The ole futz was gettin' too close," said a new voice along the link.
"You ease off till we decide whether we're going to run the Superstack, Werty."
"I don't take the kind of language that ole futz—"
"Werty, I said you ease off."
Billy glanced left for a fraction, through his open window and Lee Ramp's closed one. As they ran hub to hub with just that sliver of airspace between, he saw Ramp's face by the dashlights. Thin. Scrawny, even. He remembered how poor in color Lee Ramp had looked that last time they quarrelled. It had been at a clan get-together. A quarrel in fun, but with nastiness under the crust. They argued over who had claim on the last hot cup of ginger punch left on the table, as Billy recalled.
He despised Lee Ramp even though he could admit the skinny man had a certain kind of doomed good looks that made some girls crazy about him. Also, Lee was a keen, competent driver despite the fact that he lacked the balls to own and operate an illegal internal combustion job on moonlight runs like this.
Like a special effect hurtling at the audience in some telly flicker, a big over-the-lanes sign zoomed up toward Billy's windshield, glaring in sparkly intensity in the headlamps:
CALNEVA SUPERSTACK LEVELS 1 - 3
RIGHT LANES ONLY
Sadness tugged at Billy. This peaceful, beautiful nightrun had been spoiled by encountering the Ramps. There just weren't many times a man could be alone, really alone in the dark on one of the big Federal I-jobs. The minute the daylight peeped, there'd be vehicles by the hundreds, by the thousands, scurry- ratting toward the megs, toward this or that foolish occupation. Perhaps it was just the juicing up of his courage for the about-to-be run, but he felt a complete and lofty contempt for the poor landlocked people who used their wheels to go somewhere; to go, then stop. Billy had been born in a moving vehicle, had never traveled at a speed below 40 mph to his knowledge, and had never once been off the U.S. of A. Interstate Highway system. You had to say this much for the rotten Ramps: neither had they.
Colonel Tal said, "Billy? On your right hand—"
At the same instant, Jobe Spoiler said, "How do you call it, Billy?"
No time to call it; the pophead merging in from the right in a flare of headlamps was merging all the way, peeling in one, two, three lanes. The little electric runabout, white, and being pushed to the full, had smoke coming off its tires as it bulled over to occupy the same highway space Billy himself was occupying. The runabout was hurtling over like a juggernaut.
Billy couldn't veer left or he'd bounce Lee Ramp, and that wouldn't be right, considering the contest challenge already flung. He was in a bind, so he pedaled the brakes and hoped the increased glow of his tails would warn Colonel Tal and Jobe in time.
The popheaded stopper slotted into Billy's space when Billy's brakes grabbed, and the Twister dropped back. Jobe hit him. Brakes screamed. But it was a light smack. Jobe backed off. Billy held onto the wheel, fighting the antique power steering as it recovered from the shock to the frame. It was a minute of terror: Billy checking the rearvision mirror, heartsick as he watched Jobe whipsaw through two lanes, trying to take hold again and avoid slamming Ramp turbines; Billy checking ahead, touching, just caressing the brake with the tip of his half-boot because the runabout driver—crazy girl or woman—her yellow hair burned in the glare, flying and snapping out the left window—kept applying speed, then slacking off, to tease her pursuit. She carried regular state Tin—Nevadas—rather than the Road plates which the government in Washington granted those who lived always moving on the highways.
"You want to get rid of that or shall I?" Lee Ramp said over the radiophone.
"I will," Billy said, shifting up and laying on gas.
He zoomed up behind the runabout, hands tight on the wheel, and gave it a tap from behind, then braked off just enough. The runabout shot ahead as if fired from a cannon: Then suddenly it veered to the right. The right rear tire blew with a loud report. Billy also heard the girl driver shriek as she foolishly went for the brakes.
The runabout did an out-of-control U and came to a shuddering stop with its bonnet crumpled against the right-hand guardrail. Then Billy's Twister was by, and he saw no more.
But he heard another brake-yell, plus some cursing on the radiophone, then more brake-burning, a crash—
Lee Ramp screamed, "Dacey? You all right?"
"This is Werty, Lee. He was runnin' too far to the right. He hit her."
"Drop back, you stupid son of a bitch. Check him."
Headlights in the mirror receded swiftly as the Ramp turbine slowed. Another mammoth over-the-road sign spanning all eight lanes announced the first levels of the Superstack in five miles. The Ramp headlights zoomed up to size again:
"Dacey climbed out. He's walkin'."
"Attaboy, Dacey," Lee breathed, "attaboy, never stop moving, boy. Wasn't your fault—"
And for a moment, Billy could understand. Sympathize. For even if Dacey Ramp were dead, dead in his brains, something in his body would keep him twitching ahead on his feet, then on all fours if need be, because he'd already suffered the supreme humiliation of having his machine slowed to below 40 mph, then stopped; one thing you never did if you were born of the clans was to permit your forward motion to stop.
"You sure bunged that up, Billy," Lee Ramp said, trying to pretend that Dacey's lack of skill hadn't been at fault. Billy stifled a swear word. No point arguing that it was not his skill at fault, but the girl driver's lack of it. And Dacey's; it was worse for a man, the humiliation of coming to a complete halt. No point worrying, either. He had enough on his mind with the nearness of the Superstack—immense, multileveled, built in the vee of slate mountain walls that extended out to the sixteen lanes where Billy was now; the drivers drove down at the bottom between those walls, raising booming echoes.
What about the girl, though?
A stopper, plainly. Joyriding. He hoped he hadn't killed or maimed her. Christ, he hoped he hadn't.
"Billy boy, you cost me one of my good cousins," said Lee Ramp.
"They's only four lanes in the Superstack," said Colonel Tal; he sounded rough; unhappy; and—Billy's palms sweated all at once—none too sure? "What difference does it make?"
"Plenty of difference if you plan to yellow out," Lee returned.
"Did I say we were going to yellow out?" Billy exclaimed.
"No, but you didn't say we were running, either."
"There wasn't any time. That silly popheaded—"
"Will you quit making chicken excuses and say yes or no?" Lee yelled.
Excerpted from On Wheels ? Six-Gun Planet by John Jakes. Copyright © 1973 John Jakes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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