The roads must roll, p.2
The Roads Must Roll, p.2Robert A. Heinlein
Mrs. McCoy served the chief and his guest in person. They checked their conversation at the sight of the magnificent steaks.
Up and down the six hundred mile line, Sector Engineers of the Watch were getting in their hourly reports from their subsector technicians. "Subsector one-check!" "Subsector two-check!" Tensionometer readings, voltage, load, bearing temperatures, synchrotachometer readings-"Subsector seven-check!" Hard-bitten, able men in dungarees, who lived much of their lives 'down inside' amidst the unmuted roar of the hundred mile strip, the shrill whine of driving rotors, and the complaint of the relay rollers.
Davidson studied the moving model of the road, spread out before him in the main control room at Fresno Sector. He watched the barely perceptible crawl of the miniature hundred mile strip and subconsciously noted the reference number on it which located Jake's Steak House No. 4. The chief would be getting in to Stockton soon; he'd give him a ring after the hourly reports were in. Everything was quiet; traffic tonnage normal for rush hour; he would be sleepy before this watch was over. He turned to his Cadet Engineer of the Watch. "Mr. Barnes."
"I think we could use some coffee."
"Good idea, sir. I'll order some as soon as the hourlies are in."
The minute hand of the control board chronometer reached twelve. The cadet watch officer threw a switch. "All sectors, report!" he said, in crisp, self-conscious tones.
The faces of two men flicked into view on the visor Screen. The younger answered him with the same air of acting under supervision. "Diego Circle - rolling!"
They were at once replaced by two more. Angeles Sector - rolling!"
Then:"Bakersfield Sector - rolling!"
And:"Fresno Sector - rolling!".
Finally, when Reno Circle had reported, the cadet turned to Davidson and reported: "Rolling, sir."
"Very well-keep them rolling!"
The visor screen flashed on once more. "Sacramento Sector, supplementary report."
"Cadet Guenther, while on visual inspection as cadet sector engineer of the watch, found Cadet Alec Jeans, on watch as cadet subsector technician, and R. J. Ross, technician second class, on watch as technician for the same subsector, engaged in playing cards. It was not possible to tell with any accuracy how long they had neglected to patrol their subsector."
"One rotor running hot, but still synchronized. It was jacked down, and replaced."
"Very well. Have the paymaster give Ross his time, and turn him over to the civil authorities. Place Cadet Jeans under arrest and order him to report to me."
"Very well, sir."
"Keep them rolling!"
Davidson turned back to the control desk and dialed Chief Engineer Gaines' temporary number.
"You mentioned that there were two things that could cause major trouble on the road, Mr. Gaines, but you spoke only of power failure to the rotors."
Gaines pursued an elusive bit of salad before answering. "There really isn't a second major trouble-it won't happen. However - we are travelling along here at one hundred miles per hour. Can you visualize what would happen if this strip under us should break?"
Mr. Blekinsop shifted nervously in his chair. "Hmm - rather a disconcerting idea, don't you think? I mean to say, one is hardly aware that one is travelling at high speed, here in this snug room. What would the result be?"
"Don't let it worry you; the strip can't part. It is built
up of overlapping sections in such a fashion that it has a safety factor of better than twelve to one. Several miles of rotors would have to shut down all at once, and the circuit breakers for the rest of the line fail to trip out before there could possibly be sufficient tension on the strip to cause it to part.
"But it happened once, on the Philadelphia-Jersey City Road, and we aren't likely to forget it. It was one of the earliest high speed roads, carrying a tremendous passenger traffic, as well as heavy freight, since it serviced a heavily industrialized area. The strip was hardly more than a conveyor belt, and no one had foreseen the weight it would carry. It happened under maximum load, naturally, when the high speed way was crowded. The part of the strip behind the break buckled for miles, crushing passengers against the roof at eighty miles per hour. The section forward of the break cracked like a whip, spilling passengers onto the slower ways, dropping them on the exposed rollers and rotors down inside, and snapping them up against the roof.
"Over three thousand people were killed in that one accident, and there was much agitation to abolish the roads. They were even shut down for a week by presidential order, but he was forced to reopen them again. There was no alternative."
"Really? Why not?"
"The country bad become economically dependent on the roads. They were the principal means of transportation in the industrial areas-the only means of economic importance. Factories were shut down; food didn't move; people got hungry-and the President was forced to let them roll again. It was the only thing that could be done; the social pattern had crystallized in one form, and it couldn't be changed overnight. A large, industrialized population must have large-scale transportation, not only for people, but for trade."
Mr. Blekinsop fussed with his napkin, and rather diffidently suggested, "Mr., Gaines, I do not intend to disparage the ingenious accomplishments of your great people, but isn't it possible that you may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing your whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?"
Gaines considered this soberly. "I see your point. Yes-and no. Every civilization above the peasant and village type is dependent on some key type of machinery. The old South was based on the cotton gin. Imperial England was made possible by the steam engine. Large populations have to have machines for power, for transportation, and for manufacturing in order to live. Had it not been for machinery the large populations could never have grown up. That's not a fault of the machine; that's its virtue.
"But it is true that whenever we develop machinery to the point where it will support large populations at a high standard of living we are then bound to keep that machinery running, or suffer the consequences. But the real hazard in that is not the machinery, but the men who run the machinery. These roads, as machines, are all right. They are strong and safe and will do everything they were designed to do. No, it's not the machines, it's the men.
"When a population is dependent on a machine, they are hostages of the men who tend the machines. If their morale is high, their sense of duty strong-"
Someone up near the front of the restaurant had turned up the volume control of the radio, letting out a blast of music that drowned out Gaines' words. When the sound had been tapered down to a more nearly bearable volume, he was saying:
"Listen to that. It illustrates my point."
Blekinsop turned an ear to the music. It was a swinging march of compelling rhythm, with a modern interpretive arrangement. One could hear the roar of machinery, the repetitive clatter of mechanisms. A pleased smile of recognition spread over the Australian's face. "It's your Field Artillery Song, The Roll of the Caissons, isn't-it? But I don't see the connection."
"You're right; it was the Roll of the Caissons, but we
adapted it to our own purposes. It's the Road Song of the Transport Cadets. Wait."
The persistent throb of the march continued, and seemed to blend with the vibration of the roadway underneath into a single tympani. Then a male chorus took up the verse:
"Hear them hum!
Watch them run!
Oh, our job is never done,
For our roadways go rolling along!
While you ride;
While you glide;
We are watching 'down inside',
So your roadways keep rolling along!
"Oh, it's Hie! Hie! Hee!
The rotor men are we-
Check off the sectors loud and strong!
(spoken) One! Two! Three!
You are bound to know
That your roadways are rolling along!
(Shouted) KEEP THEM ROLLING!
That your roadways are rolling along!"
"See said Gaines, with more animation in his voice, "See? That is the real purpose of the United States Academy of Transport. That is the reason why the transport engineers are a semi-military profession, with strict discipline. We are the bottle neck, the sine qua non, of all industry, all economic life. Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations. Crops can fail here and there, and the country takes up the slack. But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike-with this important difference: It takes a majority of the population, fired by a real feeling of grievance, to
create a general strike; but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.
"We had just one strike on the roads, back in 'sixty-six. It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real, abuses-but it mustn't happen again."
"But what is to prevent it happening again, Mr. Gaines?"
"Morale-esprit de corps. The technicians in the road service are indoctrinated constantly with the idea that their job is a sacred trust. Besides which we do everything we can to build up their social position. But even more important is the Academy. We try to turn out graduate engineers imbued with the same loyalty, the same iron self-discipline, and determination to perform their duty to the community at any cost, that Annapolis and West Point and Goddard are so successful in inculcating in their graduates."
"Goddard? Oh, yes, the rocket field. And have you been successful, do you think?"
"Not entirely, perhaps, but we will be. It takes time to build up a tradition. When the oldest engineer is a man who entered the Academy in his teens, we can afford to relax a little and treat it as a solved problem."
"I suppose you are a graduate?"
Gaines grinned. "You flatter me-I must look younger than I am. No, I'm a carry-over from the army. You see, the Department of Defense operated the roads for some three months during reorganization after the strike in 'sixty-six. I served on the conciliation board that awarded pay increases and adjusted working conditions, then I was assigned-"
The signal light of the portable telephone glowed red. Gaines said, "Excuse me," and picked up the handset.'
Blekinsop could overhear the voice at the other end. "This is Davidson, Chief. The roads are rolling."
"Very well. Keep them rolling!"
"Had another trouble report from the Sacramento Sector."
"Again? What this time?"
Before Davidson could reply he was cut off. As Gaines reached out to dial him back, his coffee cup, half full, landed in his lap. Blekinsop was aware, even as he was rocked against the edge of the table, of a disquieting change in the hum of the roadway.
"What has happened, Mr. Gaines?"
"Don't know. Emergency stop-God knows why." He was dialing furiously. Shortly he flung the phone down, without bothering to return the handset to its cradle. "Phones are out. Come on! No- You'll be safe here. Wait."
"Well, come along then, and stick close to me." He turned away, having dismissed the Australian cabinet minister from his mind. The strip ground slowly to a stop, the giant rotors and myriad rollers acting as fly wheels in preventing a disastrous sudden stop. Already a little knot of commuters, disturbed at their evening meal, were attempting to crowd out the door of the restaurant.
There is something about a command issued by one who is used to being obeyed which enforces compliance. It may be intonation, or possibly a more esoteric power, such as animal tamers are reputed to be able to exercise in controlling ferocious beasts. But it does exist, and can be used to compel even those not habituated to obedience.
The commuters stopped in their tracks.
Gaines continued, "Remain in the restaurant until we are ready to evacuate you. I am the Chief Engineer. You will be in no danger here. You!" He pointed to a big fellow near the door. "You're deputized. Don't let anyone leave without proper authority. Mrs. McCoy, resume serving dinner."
Gaines strode out the door, Blekinsop tagging along. The situation outside permitted no such simple measures.
The hundred mile strip alone had stopped; a few feet away the next strip flew by at an unchecked ninety-five miles an hour. The passengers on it flickered past, unreal cardboard figures.
The twenty-foot walkway of the maximum speed strip had been crowded when the breakdown occurred. Now the customers of shops, of lunchstands, and of other places of business, the occupants of lounges, of television theatres-all came crowding out onto the walkway to see what had happened. The first disaster struck almost immediately.
The crowd surged, and pushed against a middle-aged woman on its outer edge. In attempting to recover her balance she put one foot over the edge of the flashing ninety-five mile strip. She realized her gruesome error, for she screamed before her foot touched the ribbon.
She spun around, and landed heavily on the moving strip, and was rolled by it, as the strip attempted to impart to her mass, at one blow, a velocity of ninety-five miles per hour-one hundred and thirty-nine feet per second: As she rolled she mowed down some of the cardboard figures as a sickle strikes a stand of grass. Quickly, she was out of sight, her identity, her injuries, and her fate undetermined, and already remote.
But the consequences of her mishap were not done with. One of the flickering cardboard figures bowled over by her relative momentum fell toward the hundred mile strip, slammed into the shockbound crowd, and suddenly appeared as a live man-but broken and bleeding, amidst the luckless, fallen victims whose bodies had checked his wild flight.
Even there it did not end. The disaster spread from its source, each hapless human ninepin more likely than not to knock down others so that they fell over the danger-laden boundary, and in turn ricocheted to a dearly bought equilibrium.
But the focus of calamity sped out of sight, and Blekinsop could see no more. His active mind, accustomed to dealing with large' numbers of individual human beings, multiplied the tragic sequence he had witnessed by twelve hundred miles of thronged conveyor strip, and his stomach chilled.
To Blekinsop's surprise, Gaines made no effort to succor the fallen, nor to quell the fear-infected mob, but turned an expressionless face back to the restaurant. When Blekinsop saw that he was actually re-entering the restaurant, he plucked at his sleeve. "Aren't we going to help those poor people?"
The cold planes of the face of the man who answered him bore no resemblance to his genial, rather boyish, host of a few minutes before. "No. Bystanders can help them - I've got the whole road to think of. Don't bother me."
Crushed, and somewhat indignant, the politician did as he was ordered. Rationally, he knew that the Chief Engineer was right-a man responsible for the safety of millions cannot turn aside from his duty to render personal service to one-but the cold detachment of such viewpoint was repugnant to him.
Gaines was back in the restaurant "Mrs. McCoy, where is your get-away?"
"In the pantry, sir."
Gaines hurried there, Blekinsop at his heels. A nervous Filipino salad boy shrank out of his way as he casually swept a supply of prepared green stuffs onto the floor and stepped up on the counter where they had rested. Directly above his head and within reach was a circular manhole, counterweighted and operated by a handwheel set in its center. A short steel ladder, hinged to the edge of the opening was swung up flat to ceiling and secured by a hook.
Blekinsop lost his hat in his endeavor to clamber quickly enough up the ladder after Gaines. When he emerged on the roof of the building. Gaines was searching the ceiling of the roadway with a pocket flashlight He was shuffling along, stooped double in the awkward four feet of space between the roof underfoot and ceiling.
from below. He spun the wheel of the lock and stood up in the space, then rested his hands on the sides of the opening and with a single. lithe movement vaulted to the roof of the roadways. His companion followed him with more difficulty.
They stood in darkness, a fine, cold rain feeling at their faces. But underfoot, and stretching beyond sight on each hand, the sun power screens glowed with a faint opalescent radiance, their slight percentage of inefficiency as transformers of radiant sun power to available electrical power being evidenced as a mild phosphorescence. The effect was not illumination, but rather like the ghostly sheen of a snow covered plain seen by starlight.
The glow picked out the path they must follow to reach the rain-obscured wall of buildings bordering the ways. The path was a narrow black stripe which arched away into the darkness over the low curve of the roof. They started away on this path at a dog trot, making as much speed as the slippery footing and the dark permitted, while Blekinsop's mind still fretted at the problem of Gaines' apparently callous detachment. Although possessed of a keen intelligence his nature was dominated by a warm, human sympathy, without which no politician, irrespective of other virtues or shortcomings, is long successful.
Because of this trait he distrusted instinctively any mind which was guided by logic alone. He was aware that, from a standpoint of strict logic, no reasonable case could be made out for the continued existence of the human race, still less for the human values he served.
Had he been able to pierce the preoccupation of his companion, he would have been reassured. On the surface Gaines' exceptionally intelligent mind was clicking along with the facile ease of an electronic integrator-arranging data at hand, making tentative decisions, postponing judgments without prejudice until necessary data were available, exploring alternatives. Underneath, in a compartment insulated by stern self-discipline from the acting theatre of his mind, his emotions were a torturing storm
The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes