The late afternoon sun hid behind gray banks of snow clouds and a cold wind whipped loose leaves across the drill field in front of the Philadelphia Barracks of the North American Continental Thruway Patrol. There was the feel of snow in the air but the thermometer hovered just at the freezing mark and the clouds could turn either into icy rain or snow.
Patrol Sergeant Ben Martin stepped out of the door of the barracks and shivered as a blast of wind hit him. He pulled up the zipper on his loose blue uniform coveralls and paused to gauge the storm clouds building up to the west.
The broad planes of his sunburned face turned into the driving cold wind for a moment and then he looked back down at the weather report secured to the top of a stack of papers on his clipboard.
Behind him, the door of the barracks was shouldered open by his junior partner, Patrol Trooper Clay Ferguson. The young, tall Canadian officer’s arms were loaded with paper sacks and his patrol work helmet dangled by its strap from the crook of his arm.
Clay turned and moved from the doorway into the wind. A sudden gust swept around the corner of the building and a small sack perched atop one of the larger bags in his arms blew to the ground and began tumbling towards the drill field.
“Ben,” he yelled, “grab the bag.”
The sergeant lunged as the sack bounced by and made the retrieve. He walked back to Ferguson and eyed the load of bags in the blond-haired officer’s arms.
“Just what is all this?” he inquired.
“Groceries,” the youngster grinned. “Or to be more exact, little gourmet items for our moments of gracious living.”
Ferguson turned into the walk leading to the motor pool and Martin swung into step beside him. “Want me to carry some of that junk?”
“Junk,” Clay cried indignantly. “You keep your grimy paws off these delicacies, peasant. You’ll get yours in due time and perhaps it will help Kelly and me to make a more polished product of you instead of the clodlike cop you are today.”
Martin chuckled. This patrol would mark the start of the second year that he, Clay Ferguson and Medical-Surgical Officer Kelly Lightfoot had been teamed together. After twenty-two patrols, cooped up in a semiarmored vehicle with a man for ten days at a time, you got to know him pretty well. And you either liked him or you hated his guts.
As senior officer, Martin had the right to reject or keep his partner after their first eleven-month duty tour. Martin had elected to retain the lanky Canadian. As soon as they had pulled into New York Barracks at the end of their last patrol, he had made his decisions. After eleven months and twenty-two patrols on the Continental Thruways, each team had a thirty-day furlough coming.
Martin and Ferguson had headed for the city the minute they put their signatures on the last of the stack of reports needed at the end of a tour. Then, for five days and nights, they tied one on. MSO Kelly Lightfoot had made a beeline for a Columbia Medical School seminar on tissue regeneration. On the sixth day, Clay staggered out of bed, swigged down a handful of antireaction pills, showered, shaved and dressed and then waved good-by. Twenty minutes later he was aboard a jet, heading for his parents’ home in Edmonton, Alberta. Martin soloed around the city for another week, then rented a car and raced up to his sister’s home in Burlington, Vermont, to play Uncle Bountiful to Carol’s three kids and to lap up as much as possible of his sister’s real cooking.
While the troopers and their med officer relaxed, a service crew moved their car down to the Philadelphia motor pool for a full overhaul and refitting for the next torturous eleven-month-tour of duty.
The two patrol troopers had reported into the Philadelphia Barracks five days ago--Martin several pounds heavier courtesy of his sister’s cooking; Ferguson several pounds lighter courtesy of three assorted, starry-eyed, uniform-struck Alberta maidens.
They turned into the gate of the motor pool and nodded to the sentry at the gate. To their left, the vast shop buildings echoed to the sound of body-banging equipment and roaring jet engines. The darkening sky made the brilliant lights of the shop seem even brighter and the hulls of a dozen patrol cars cast deep shadows around the work crews.
The troopers turned into the dispatcher’s office and Clay carefully placed the bags on a table beside the counter. Martin peered into one of the bags. “Seriously, kid, what do you have in that grab bag?”
“Oh, just a few essentials,” Clay replied “Pate de foie gras, sharp cheese, a smidgen of cooking wine, a handful of spices. You know, stuff like that. Like I said--essentials.”
“Essentials,” Martin snorted, “you give your brains to one of those Alberta chicks of yours for a souvenir?”
“Look, Ben,” Ferguson said earnestly, “I suffered for eleven months in that tin mausoleum on tracks because of what you fondly like to think is edible food. You’ve got as much culinary imagination as Beulah. I take that back. Even Beulah turns out some better smells when she’s riding on high jet than you’ll ever get out of her galley in the next one hundred years. This tour, I intend to eat like a human being once again. And I’ll teach you how to boil water without burning it.”
“Why you ungrateful young--” Martin yelped.
The patrol dispatcher, who had been listening with amused tolerance, leaned across the counter.
“If Oscar Waldorf is through with his culinary lecture, gentlemen,” he said, “perhaps you two could be persuaded to take a little pleasure ride. It’s a lovely night for a drive and it’s just twenty-six hundred miles to the next service station. If you two aren’t cooking anything at the moment, I know that NorCon would simply adore having the services of two such distinguished Continental Commandos.”
Ferguson flushed and Martin scowled at the dispatcher. “Very funny, clown. I’ll recommend you for trooper status one of these days.”
“Not me,” the dispatcher protested. “I’m a married man. You’ll never get me out on the road in one of those blood-and-gut factories.”
“So quit sounding off to us heroes,” Martin said, “and give us the clearances.”
The dispatcher opened a loose-leaf reference book on the counter and then punched the first of a series of buttons on a panel. Behind him, the wall lighted with a map of the eastern United States to the Mississippi River. Ferguson and Martin had pencils out and poised over their clipboards.
The dispatcher glanced at the order board across the room where patrol car numbers and team names were displayed on an illuminated board. “Car 56--Martin-Ferguson-Lightfoot,” glowed with an amber light. In the column to the right was the number “26-W.” The dispatcher punched another button. A broad belt of multi-colored lines representing the eastern segment of North American Thruway 26 flashed onto the map in a band extending from Philadelphia to St. Louis. The thruway went on to Los Angeles in its western segment, not shown on the map. Ten bands of color--each five separated by a narrow clear strip, detailed the thruway. Martin and Ferguson were concerned with the northern five bands; NAT 26-westbound. Other unlighted lines radiated out in tangential spokes to the north and south along the length of the multi-colored belt of NAT 26.
This was just one small segment of the Continental Thruway system that spanned North America from coast to coast and crisscrossed north and south under the Three Nation Road Compact from the southern tip of Mexico into Canada and Alaska.
Each arterial cut a five-mile-wide path across the continent and from one end to the other, the only structures along the roadways were the turretlike NorCon Patrol check and relay stations--looming up at one-hundred-mile intervals like the fire control islands of earlier-day aircraft carriers.
Car 56 with Trooper Sergeant Ben Martin, Trooper Clay Ferguson and Medical-Surgical Officer Kelly Lightfoot, would take their first ten-day patrol on NAT 26-west. Barring major disaster, they would eat, sleep and work the entire time from their car; out of sight of any but distant cities until they had reached Los Angeles at the end of the patrol. Then a five-day resupply and briefing period and back onto another thruway.
During the coming patrol they would cross ten state lines as if they didn’t exist. And as far as thruway traffic control and authority was concerned, state and national boundaries actually didn’t exist. With the growth of the old interstate highway system and the Alcan Highway it became increasingly evident that variation in motor vehicle laws from state to state and country to country were creating impossible situations for any uniform safety control.
With the establishment of the Continental Thruway System two decades later, came the birth of the supra-cop--The North American Thruway Patrol, known as NorCon. Within the five-mile bands of the thruways--all federally-owned land by each of the three nations--the blue-coveralled “Continental Commandos” of NorCon were the sole law enforcement agency and authority. Violators of thruway law were cited into NorCon district traffic courts located in the nearest city to each access port along every thruway.
There was no challenge to the authority of NorCon. Public demand for faster and more powerful vehicles had forced the automotive industry to put more and more power under the touch of the ever-growing millions of drivers crowding the continent’s roads. Piston drive gave way to turbojet; turbojet was boosted by a modification of ram jet and air-cushion drive was added. In the last two years, the first of the nuclear reaction mass engines had hit the roads. Even as the hot Ferraris and Jags of the mid-’60s would have been suicide vehicles on the T-model roads of the ‘20s so would today’s vehicles be on the interstates of the ‘60s. But building roads capable of handling three hundred to four hundred miles an hour speeds was beyond the financial and engineering capabilities of individual states and nations. Thus grew the continental thruways with their four speed lanes in each direction, each a half-mile wide separated east and west and north and south by a half-mile-wide landscaped divider. Under the Three Nation Compact, the thruways now wove a net across the entire North American continent.
On the big wall map, NAT 26-west showed as four colored lines; blue and yellow as the two high and ultra-high speed lanes; green and white for the intermediate and slow lanes. Between the blue and yellow and the white and green was a red band. This was the police emergency lane, never used by other than official vehicles and crossed by the traveling public shifting from one speed lane to another only at sweeping crossovers.
The dispatcher picked up an electric pointer and aimed the light beam at the map. Referring to his notes, he began to recite.
“Resurfacing crews working on 26-W blue at milestone Marker 185 to Marker 187, estimated clearance 0300 hours Tuesday--Let’s see, that’s tomorrow morning.”
The two officers were writing the information down on their trip-analysis sheets.
“Ohio State is playing Cal under the lights at Columbus tonight so you can expect a traffic surge sometime shortly after 2300 hours but most of it will stay in the green and white. Watch out for the drunks though. They might filter out onto the blue or yellow.
“The crossover for NAT 163 has painting crews working. Might watch out for any crud on the roadway. And they’ve got the entrance blocked there so that all 163 exchange traffic is being rerouted to 164 west of Chillicothe.”
The dispatcher thumbed through his reference sheets. “That seems to be about all. No, wait a minute. This is on your trick. The Army’s got a priority missile convoy moving out of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds bound for the west coast tonight at 1800 hours. It will be moving at green lane speeds so you might watch out for it. They’ll have thirty-four units in the convoy. And that is all. Oh, yes. Kelly’s already aboard. I guess you know about the weather.”
Martin nodded. “Yup. We should be hitting light snows by 2300 hours tonight in this area and it could be anything from snow to ice-rain after that.” He grinned at his younger partner. “The vacation is over, sonny. Tonight we make a man out of you.”
Ferguson grinned back. “Nuts to you, pop. I’ve got character witnesses back in Edmonton who’ll give you glowing testimonials about my manhood.”
“Testimonials aren’t legal unless they’re given by adults,” Martin retorted. “Come on, lover boy. Duty calls.”
Clay carefully embraced his armload of bundles and the two officers turned to leave. The dispatcher leaned across the counter.
“Oh, Ferguson, one thing I forgot. There’s some light corrugations in red lane just east of St. Louis. You might be careful with your souffles in that area. Wouldn’t want them to fall, you know.”
Clay paused and started to turn back. The grinning dispatcher ducked into the back office and slammed the door.
The wind had died down by the time the troopers entered the brilliantly lighted parking area. The temperature seemed warmer with the lessening winds but in actuality, the mercury was dropping. The snow clouds to the west were much nearer and the overcast was getting darker.
But under the great overhead light tubes, the parking area was brighter than day. A dozen huge patrol vehicles were parked on the front “hot” line. Scores more were lined out in ranks to the back of the parking zone. Martin and Ferguson walked down the line of military blue cars. Number 56 was fifth on the line. Service mechs were just re-housing fueling lines into a ground panel as the troopers walked up. The technician corporal was the first to speak. “All set, Sarge,” he said. “We had to change an induction jet at the last minute and I had the port engine running up to reline the flow. Thought I’d better top ‘er off for you, though, before you pull out. She sounds like a purring kitten.”
He tossed the pair a waving salute and then moved out to his service dolly where three other mechs were waiting.
The officers paused and looked up at the bulk of the huge patrol car.
“Beulah looks like she’s been to the beauty shop and had the works,” Martin said. He reached out and slapped the maglurium plates. “Welcome home, sweetheart. I see you’ve kept a candle in the window for your wandering son.” Ferguson looked up at the lighted cab, sixteen feet above the pavement.
Car 56--Beulah to her team--was a standard NorCon Patrol vehicle. She was sixty feet long, twelve feet wide and twelve feet high; topped by a four-foot-high bubble canopy over her cab. All the way across her nose was a three-foot-wide luminescent strip. This was the variable beam headlight that could cut a day-bright swath of light through night, fog, rain or snow and could be varied in intensity, width and elevation. Immediately above the headlight strip were two red-black plastic panels which when lighted, sent out a flashing red emergency signal that could be seen for miles. Similar emergency lights and back-up white light strips adorned Beulah’s stern. Her bow rounded down like an old-time tank and blended into the track assembly of her dual propulsion system. With the exception of the cabin bubble and a two-foot stepdown on the last fifteen feet of her hull, Beulah was free of external protrusions. Racked into a flush-decked recess on one side of the hull was a crane arm with a two-hundred-ton lift capacity. Several round hatches covered other extensible gear and periscopes used in the scores of multiple operations the NorCon cars were called upon to accomplish on routine road patrols.
Beulah resembled a gigantic offspring of a military tank, sans heavy armament. But even a small stinger was part of the patrol car equipment. As for armament, Beulah had weapons to meet every conceivable skirmish in the deadly battle to keep Continental Thruways fast-moving and safe. Her own two-hundred-fifty-ton bulk could reach speeds of close to six hundred miles an hour utilizing one or both of her two independent propulsion systems.
At ultra-high speeds, Beulah never touched the ground--floating on an impeller air cushion and driven forward by a pair of one hundred fifty thousand pound thrust jets and ram jets. At intermediate high speeds, both her air cushion and the four-foot-wide tracks on each side of the car pushed her along at two hundred-mile-an-hour-plus speeds. Synchro mechanisms reduced the air cushion as the speeds dropped to afford more surface traction for the tracks. For slow speeds and heavy duty, the tracks carried the burden.
Martin thumbed open the portside ground-level cabin door.
“I’ll start the outside check,” he told Clay. “You stow that garbage of yours in the galley and start on the dispensary. I’ll help you after I finish out here.”
As the younger officer entered the car and headed up the short flight of steps to the working deck, the sergeant unclipped a check list from the inside of the door and turned towards the stern of the big vehicle.
Clay mounted to the work deck and turned back to the little galley just aft of the cab. As compact as a spaceship kitchen--as a matter of fact, designed almost identically from models on the Moon run--the galley had but three feet of open counter space. Everything else, sink, range, oven and freezer, were built-ins with pull-downs for use as needed. He set his bags on the small counter to put away after the pre-start check. Aft of the galley and on the same side of the passageway were the double-decked bunks for the patrol troopers. Across the passageway was a tiny latrine and shower. Clay tossed his helmet on the lower bunk as he went down the passageway. At the bulkhead to the rear, he pressed a wall panel and a thick, insulated door slid back to admit him to the engine compartment. The service crews had shut down the big power plants and turned off the air exchangers and already the heat from the massive engines made the compartment uncomfortably warm.
He hurried through into a small machine shop. In an emergency, the troopers could turn out small parts for disabled vehicles or for other uses. It also stocked a good supply of the most common failure parts. Racked against the ceiling were banks of cutting torches, a grim reminder that death or injury still rode the thruways with increasing frequency.
In the tank storage space between the ceiling and top of the hull were the chemical fire-fighting liquids and foam that could be applied by nozzles, hoses and towers now telescoped into recesses in the hull. Along both sides and beneath the galley, bunks, engine and machine-shop compartments between the walls, deck and hull, were Beulah’s fuel storage tanks.
The last after compartment was a complete dispensary, one that would have made the emergency room or even the light surgery rooms of earlier-day hospitals proud.
Clay tapped on the door and went through. Medical-Surgical Officer Kelly Lightfoot was sitting on the deck, stowing sterile bandage packs into a lower locker. She looked up at Clay and smiled. “Well, well, you DID manage to tear yourself away from your adoring bevies,” she said. She flicked back a wisp of golden-red hair from her forehead and stood up. The patrol-blue uniform coverall with its belted waist didn’t do much to hide a lovely, properly curved figure. She walked over to the tall Canadian trooper and reached up and grabbed his ear. She pulled his head down, examined one side critically and then quickly snatched at his other ear and repeated the scrutiny. She let go of his ear and stepped back. “Damned if you didn’t get all the lipstick marks off, too.”
Clay flushed. “Cut it out, Kelly,” he said. “Sometimes you act just like my mother.”
The olive-complexioned redhead grinned at him and turned back to her stack of boxes on the deck. She bent over and lifted one of the boxes to the operating table. Clay eyed her trim figure. “You might act like ma sometimes,” he said, “but you sure don’t look like her.”
It was the Irish-Cherokee Indian girl’s turn to flush. She became very busy with the contents of the box. “Where’s Ben?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Making outside check. You about finished in here?”
Kelly turned and slowly scanned the confines of the dispensary. With the exception of the boxes on the table and floor, everything was behind secured locker doors. In one corner, the compact diagnostician--capable of analyzing many known human bodily ailments and every possible violent injury to the body--was locked in its riding clamps. Surgical trays and instrument racks were all hidden behind locker doors along with medical and surgical supplies. On either side of the emergency ramp door at the stern of the vehicle, three collapsible autolitters hung from clamps. Six hospital bunks in two tiers of three each, lined another wall. On patrol, Kelly utilized one of the hospital bunks for her own use except when they might all be occupied with accident or other kind of patients. And this would never be for more than a short period, just long enough to transfer them to a regular ambulance or hospital vehicle. Her meager supply of personal items needed for the ten-day patrol were stowed in a small locker and she shared the latrine with the male members of the team.
Kelly completed her scan, glanced down at the checklist in her hand. “I’ll have these boxes stowed in five minutes. Everything else is secure.” She raised her hand to her forehead in mock salute. “Medical-Surgical Officer Lightfoot reports dispensary ready for patrol, sir.”
Clay smiled and made a checkmark on his clipboard. “How was the seminar, Kelly?” he asked.
Kelly hiked herself onto the edge of the operating table. “Wonderful, Clay, just wonderful. I never saw so many good-looking, young, rich and eligible doctors together in one place in all my life.”
She sighed and smiled vacantly into space.
Clay snorted. “I thought you were supposed to be learning something new about tissue regeneration,” he said.
“Generation, regeneration, who cares,” Kelly grinned.
Clay started to say something, got flustered and wheeled around to leave--and bounded right off Ben Martin’s chest. Ferguson mumbled something and pushed past the older officer.
Ben looked after him and then turned back to Car 56’s combination doctor, surgeon and nurse. “Glad to see the hostess aboard for this cruise. I hope you make the passengers more comfortable than you’ve just made the first mate. What did you do to Clay, Kelly?”
“Hi, Ben,” Kelly said. “Oh, don’t worry about junior. He just gets all fluttery when a girl takes away his masculine prerogative to make cleverly lewd witticisms. He’ll be all right. Have a happy holiday, Ben? You look positively fat.”
Ben patted his stomach. “Carol’s good cooking. Had a nice restful time. And how about you. That couldn’t have been all work. You’ve got a marvelous tan.”
“Don’t worry,” Kelly laughed, “I had no intention of letting it be all study. I spent just about as much time under the sun dome at the pool as I did in class. I learned a lot though.”
Ben grinned and headed back to the front of the car. “Tell me more after we’re on the road,” he said from the doorway. “We’ll be rolling in ten minutes.”
When he reached the cab, Clay was already in the right-hand control seat and was running down the instrument panel check. The sergeant lifted the hatch door between the two control seats and punched on a light to illuminate the stark compartment at the lower front end of the car. A steel grill with a dogged handle on the upper side covered the opening under the hatch cover. Two swing-down bunks were racked up against the walls on either side and the front hull door was without an inside handle. This was the patrol car brig, used for bringing in unwilling violators or other violent or criminal subjects who might crop up in the course of a patrol tour. Satisfied with the appearance of the brig, Ben closed the hatch cover and slid into his own control seat on the left of the cab. Both control seats were molded and plastiformed padded to the contours of the troopers and the armrests on both were studded with buttons and a series of small, finger-operated, knobs. All drive, communication and fire fighting controls for the massive vehicle were centered in the knobs and buttons on the seat arms, while acceleration and braking controls were duplicated in two footrest pedals beneath their feet.
Ben settled into his seat and glanced down to make sure his work-helmet was racked beside him. He reached over and flipped a bank of switches on the instrument panel. “All communications to ‘on, ‘“ he said. Clay made a checkmark on his list. “All pre-engine start check complete,” Clay replied.
“In that case,” the senior trooper said, “let’s give Beulah some exercise. Start engines.”
Clay’s fingers danced across the array of buttons on his seat arms and flicked lightly at the throttle knobs. From deep within the engine compartment came the muted, shrill whine of the starter engines, followed a split-second later by the full-throated roar of the jets as they caught fire. Clay eased the throttles back and the engine noise softened to a muffled roar.
Martin fingered a press-panel on the right arm of his seat.
“Car 56 to Philly Control,” Ben called.
The speakers mounted around the cab came to life. “Go ahead Five Six.”
“Five Six fired up and ready to roll,” Martin said.
“Affirmative Five Six,” came the reply, “You’re clear to roll. Philly Check estimates white density 300; green, 840; blue 400; yellow, 75.”
Both troopers made mental note of the traffic densities in their first one-hundred-mile patrol segment; an estimated three hundred vehicles for each ten miles of thruway in the white or fifty to one hundred miles an hour low lane; eight hundred forty vehicles in the one hundred to one hundred fifty miles an hour green, and so on. More than sixteen thousand westbound vehicles on the thruway in the first one hundred miles; nearly five thousand of them traveling at speeds between one hundred fifty and three hundred miles an hour.
Over the always-hot intercom throughout the big car Ben called out. “All set, Kelly?”
“I’m making coffee,” Kelly answered from the galley. “Let ‘er roll.”
Martin started to kick off the brakes, then stopped. “Ooops,” he exclaimed, “almost forgot.” His finger touched another button and a blaring horn reverberated through the vehicle.
In the galley, Kelly hurled herself into a corner. Her body activated a pressure plant and a pair of mummy-like plastifoam plates slid curvingly out the wall and locked her in a soft cocoon. A dozen similar safety clamps were located throughout the car at every working and relaxation station.
In the same instance, both Ben and Clay touched another plate on their control seats. From kiosk-type columns behind each seat, pairs of body-molded crash pads snapped into place to encase both troopers in their seats, their bodies cushioned and locked into place. Only their fingers were loose beneath the spongy substance to work arm controls. The half-molds included headforms with a padded band that locked across their foreheads to hold their heads rigidly against the backs of their reinforced seats. The instant all three crew members were locked into their safety gear, the bull horn ceased.
“All tight,” Ben called out as he wiggled and tried to free himself from the cocoon. Kelly and Clay tested their harnesses.
Satisfied that the safety cocoons were operating properly, Ben released them and the molds slid back into their recesses. The cocoons were triggered automatically in any emergency run or chase at speeds in excess of two hundred miles an hour.
Again he kicked off the brakes, pressed down on the foot feed and Car 56--Beulah--rolled out of the Philadelphia motor pool on the start of its ten-day patrol.
The motor pool exit opened into a quarter-mile wide tunnel sloping gently down into the bowels of the great city. Car 56 glided down the slight incline at a steady fifty miles an hour. A mile from the mouth of the tunnel the roadway leveled off and Ben kicked Beulah up another twenty-five miles an hour. Ahead, the main tunnel ended in a series of smaller portal ways, each emblazoned with a huge illuminated number designating a continental thruway.
Ben throttled back and began edging to the left lanes. Other patrol cars were heading down the main passageway, bound for their assigned thruways. As Ben eased down to a slow thirty, another patrol vehicle slid alongside. The two troopers in the cab waved. Clay flicked on the “car-to-car” transmit.
The senior trooper in Car 104 looked over at Martin and Ferguson. “If it isn’t the gruesome twosome,” he called. “Where have you two been? We thought the front office had finally caught up with you and found out that neither one of you could read or write and that they had canned you.”
“We can’t read,” Ben quipped back. “That’s why we’re still on the job. The front office would never hire anyone who would embarrass you two by being smarter than either of you. Where’re you headed, Eddie?”
“Got 154-north,” the other officer said.
“Hey,” Clay called out, “I’ve got a real hot doll in Toronto and I’ll gladly sell her phone number for a proper price.”
“Wouldn’t want to hurt you, Clay,” the other officer replied. “If I called her up and took her out, she’d throw rocks at you the next time you drew the run. It’s all for your own good.”
“Oh, go get lost in a cloverleaf,” Clay retorted.
The other car broke the connection and with a wave, veered off to the right. The thruway entrances were just ahead. Martin aimed Beulah at the lighted orifice topped by the number 26-W. The patrol car slid into the narrower tunnel, glided along for another mile and then turned its bow upwards. Three minutes later, they emerged from the tunnel into the red patrol lane of Continental Thruway 26-West. The late afternoon sky was a covering of gray wool and a drop or two of moisture struck the front face of the cab canopy. For a mile on either side of the police lane, streams of cars sped westward. Ben eyed the sky, the traffic and then peered at the outer hull thermometer. It read thirty-two degrees. He made a mental bet with himself that the weather bureau was off on its snow estimates by six hours. His Vermont upbringing told him it would be flurrying within the hour.
He increased speed to a steady one hundred and the car sped silently and easily along the police lane. Across the cab, Clay peered pensively at the steady stream of cars and cargo carriers racing by in the green and blue lanes--all of them moving faster than the patrol car.
The young officer turned in his seat and looked at his partner.
“You know, Ben,” he said gravely, “I sometimes wonder if those old-time cowboys got as tired looking at the south end of northbound cows as I get looking at the vanishing tail pipes of cars.”
The radio came to life.
“Philly Control to Car 56.”
Clay touched his transmit plate. “This is Five Six. Go ahead.”
“You’ve got a bad one at Marker 82,” Control said. “A sideswipe in the white.”
“Couldn’t be too bad in the white,” Ben broke in, thinking of the one-hundred mile-an-hour limit in the slow lane.
“That’s not the problem,” Control came back. “One of the sideswiped vehicles was flipped around and bounded into the green, and that’s where the real mess is. Make it code three.”
“Five Six acknowledge,” Ben said. “On the way.”
He slammed forward on the throttles. The bull horn blared and a second later, with MSO Kelly Lightfoot snugged in her dispensary cocoon and both troopers in body cushions, Car 56 lifted a foot from the roadway, and leaped forward on a turbulent pad of air. It accelerated from one hundred to two hundred fifty miles an hour.
The great red emergency lights on the bow and stern began to blink and from the special transmitter in the hull a radio siren wail raced ahead of the car to be picked up by the emergency receptor antennas required on all vehicles.
The working part of the patrol had begun.
Conversation died in the speeding car, partly because of the concentration required by the troopers, secondly because all transmissions whether intercom or radio, on a code two or three run, were taped and monitored by Control. In the center of the instrument panel, an oversized radiodometer was clicking off the mileage marks as the car passed each milestone. The milestone posts beamed a coded signal across all five lanes and as each vehicle passed the marker, the radiodometer clicked up another number.
Car 56 had been at MM 23 when the call came. Now, at better than four miles a minute, Beulah whipped past MM 45 with ten minutes yet to go to reach the scene of the accident. Light flurries of wet snow bounced off the canopy, leaving thin, fast-drying trails of moisture. Although it was still a few minutes short of 1700 hours, the last of the winter afternoon light was being lost behind the heavy snow clouds overhead. Ben turned on the patrol car’s dazzling headlight and to the left and right, Clay could see streaks of white lights from the traffic on the green and blue lanes on either side of the quarter-mile wide emergency lane.
The radio filled them in on the movement of other patrol emergency vehicles being routed to the accident site. Car 82, also assigned to NAT 26-West, was more than one hundred fifty miles ahead of Beulah. Pittsburgh Control ordered Eight Two to hold fast to cover anything else that might come up while Five Six was handling the current crisis. Eastbound Car 119 was ordered to cut across to the scene to assist Beulah’s crew, and another eastbound patrol vehicle was held in place to cover for One One Nine.
At mile marker 80, yellow caution lights were flashing on all westbound lanes, triggered by Philadelphia Control the instant the word of the crash had been received. Traffic was slowing down and piling up despite the half-mile wide lanes.
“Philly Control this is Car 56.”
“Go ahead Five Six.”
“It’s piling up in the green and white,” Ben said. “Let’s divert to blue on slowdown and seal the yellow.”
“Philly Control acknowledged,” came the reply.
The flashing amber caution lights on all lanes switched to red. As Ben began de-acceleration, diagonal red flashing barriers rose out of the roadway on the green and white lanes at the 85 mile marker and lane crossing. This channelled all traffic from both lanes to the left and into the blue lane where the flashing reds now prohibited speeds in excess of fifty miles an hour around the emergency situation. At the same time, all crossovers on the ultra high yellow lane were sealed by barriers to prevent changing of lanes into the over-congested area.
As Car 56’s speed dropped back below the two hundred mile an hour mark the cocoon automatically slid open. Freed from her safety restraints, Kelly jumped for the rear entrance of the dispensary and cleared the racking clamps from the six autolitters. That done, she opened another locker and reached for the mobile first-aid kit. She slid it to the door entrance on its retractable casters. She slipped on her work helmet with the built-in transmitter and then sat down on the seat by the rear door to wait until the car stopped.
Car 56 was now less than two miles from the scene of the crash and traffic in the green lane to the left was at a standstill. A half mile farther westward, lights were still moving slowly along the white lane. Ahead, the troopers could see a faint wisp of smoke rising from the heaviest congregation of headlights. Both officers had their work helmets on and Clay had left his seat and descended to the side door, ready to jump out the minute the car stopped.
Martin saw a clear area in the green lane and swung the car over the dividing curbing. The big tracks floated the patrol car over the two-foot high, rounded abutment that divided each speed lane. Snow was falling faster as the headlight picked out a tangled mass of wreckage smoldering a hundred feet inside the median separating the green and white lanes. A crumpled body lay on the pavement twenty feet from the biggest clump of smashed metal, and other fragments of vehicles were strung out down the roadway for fifty feet. There was no movement.
NorCon thruway laws were strict and none were more rigidly enforced than the regulation that no one other than a member of the patrol set foot outside of their vehicle while on any thruway traffic lane. This meant not giving any assistance whatsoever to accident victims. The ruling had been called inhuman, monstrous, unthinkable, and lawmakers in the three nations of the compact had forced NorCon to revoke the rule in the early days of the thruways. After speeding cars and cargo carriers had cut down twice as many do-gooders on foot at accident scenes than the accidents themselves caused, the law was reinstated. The lives of the many were more vital than the lives of a few.
Martin halted the patrol vehicle a few feet from the wreckage and Beulah was still rocking gently on her tracks by the time both Patrol Trooper Clay Ferguson and MSO Kelly Lightfoot hit the pavement on the run.
In the cab, Martin called in on the radio. “Car 56 is on scene. Release blue at Marker 95 and resume speeds all lanes at Marker 95 in--” he paused and looked back at the halted traffic piled up before the lane had been closed “--seven minutes.” He jumped for the steps and sprinted out of the patrol car in the wake of Ferguson and Kelly.
The team’s surgeon was kneeling beside the inert body on the road. After an ear to the chest, Kelly opened her field kit bag and slapped an electrode to the victim’s temple. The needle on the encephalic meter in the lid of the kit never flickered. Kelly shut the bag and hurried with it over to the mass of wreckage. A thin column of black, oily smoke rose from somewhere near the bottom of the heap. It was almost impossible to identify at a glance whether the mangled metal was the remains of one or more cars. Only the absence of track equipment made it certain that they even had been passenger vehicles.
Clay was carefully climbing up the side of the piled up wrecks to a window that gaped near the top.