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RIO GRANDE GORGE
It was a bright, hot morning, a typical New Mexico high desert summer day with a stiff breeze blowing in from the mountains. But there was trouble in the air.
Acting Sergeant Hamilton Cree, New Mexico Highway Patrol, sat in his air-conditioned cruiser and watched the traffic piling up on U.S. 67. As ordered by the World Council security team, he had swung his cruiser to block the lane that entered the bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge and turned on his BRIDGE TEMPORARILY CLOSED sign. The words hung in midair over the roof of his cruiser, big enough to see twenty car lengths down the road.
Another cruiser was blocking access on the other side of the bridge.
Cree was nearing the age of twenty-three, the year in which his required public service would be ended and he could leave the Highway Patrol with a reasonably healthy pension. The big question in his mind was whether he should be content to live off the pension or try to find a job that brought in more income. If he did get a job, he knew, his pension would be cut off; if he ever lost the job, he’d be up the creek.
It was illegal to get married while working off his public service obligation. But would the pension be enough to support a wife and start a family?
One of the truck drivers sitting in the growing line of traffic was leaning out the window of his rig and hollering, his face getting red. With an unhappy sigh, Cree opened the door of his cruiser and stepped out into the baking heat. He had never been able to accustom himself to this high desert and its bone-dry climate. Even the wind felt like it was coming out of an oven.
Cree had been born in Louisiana, where the air was as soft and moist as a wet towel. Even in Nashville, where the family had moved to escape the greenhouse floods, summers were milder, gentler. Coming to New Mexico wasn’t his idea; he’d been assigned there.
He was exactly six feet tall, or 1.828 meters in the government’s files, lean as a fishing rod, with a longish face and sad brown eyes. His hair, trimmed to an official Highway Patrol buzz, was a light, sandy color.
“What the hell you idiots holding up traffic for?” the truck driver was hollering to no one in particular: just venting his anger at being delayed.
Walking slowly toward the truck, Cree mentally counted the few days remaining until he could take off the Highway Patrol uniform for the final time.
“What’s your problem?” he called to the irate driver.
“Problem? I got a delivery to make and a schedule to keep and you pissants are blocking traffic. I don’t see no accident or construction or nothing. What the hell’s the big idea?”
Frowning to show he didn’t like what was going on any more than the trucker did, Cree said, “It’s the star traveler. He wants to show off the gorge to the woman he brought back to Earth with him.”
“Yeah. The guy who went to what’s-its-name … New Earth, they call it.”
“And he came back here to block traffic? That shits!”
With a shrug Cree said, “Just hang in there, buddy. Nothing you or I can do about it. Orders from ’way high above.”
“It still shits!”
“Cool down, buddy. You can tell your bosses that you were delayed by an official government order.”
“I ain’t got no bosses. I’m not a fuckin’ public service time-server, like you. I own this truck.”
His brow wrinkling, Cree asked, “Then what’re you doin’ driving the rig? Ain’t it automatic?”
“Yeah, it runs by itself. But the friggin’ law says a human has to be present in the cab at all times, in case there’s an emergency. Don’t they teach you guys the law of the land?”
As a matter of fact, Cree remembered something about the so-called safety redundancy law; he had just never paid much attention to it. He’d never had to.
“So you just sit there while the truck drives itself?”
“Weird. Whattaya do with all that time?”
“Play computer games. Take new orders. Watch vids. Whatever.”
The trucker scowled at Cree. “Look, buster, I don’t deliver on time, it comes outta my profits. Can’tcha let me through?”
“Nothing I can do about it,” Cree said. “Sorry.”
He turned and started walking back to his cruiser, leaving the trucker to boil in his own angry juices.
And he realized that there really was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could do about almost anything. He’d been assigned to the public service program as soon as he’d finished high school. The psych people sitting behind their desks gave him a battery of tests, then sent him to a training center where he was taught how to be a police officer.
The public service program was for guys like him, Cree understood. Women too. Youngsters who had no prospects for a real job, not with robots doing most of the labor. You went into a clothing store or a food market or even a bar and there were robots politely and efficiently doing the work.
So they assigned you to public service, and you took what they gave you. Or else you went into the labor pool and sat around doing nothing, at minimum wage. Cree figured being a cop was better than being a bum.
But not for much longer.
He ducked back into the cool comfort of his cruiser and slammed its door shut. Out on the bridge he could see this guy and a gal walking slowly across the pavement. From this distance she looked like a regular woman, even though she was an alien from New Earth. Not a care in the world, either of them. The bridge had been cleared for them. Traffic stopped. Not even pedestrians allowed on the bridge. Nearly a dozen World Council security spooks standing around at both ends of the bridge, as if we can’t handle the job by ourselves. Just so they can see the gorge without being bothered by traffic or other people.
Then a new thought struck him. Maybe the World Council people are afraid he’s brought back some kind of virus from New Earth. Or his woman’s carrying a bug and they don’t want anybody to catch it.
Naw, he told himself. They would never have let them out of quarantine if they were worried about that. Would they?
From somewhere far back in the line of waiting traffic somebody honked his horn.
Yeah, Cree thought. That’s gonna do you a lot of good.
A star traveler. He gets all kinds of special treatment, and what do we get? Five years of mandatory public service and then you’re out on your own, sink or swim. Live on the pension they give you or find a job someplace that a robot hasn’t already taken. Try to find a wife and have some kids.
Must be nice to be a star traveler.
Copyright © 2015 by Ben Bova