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  3. When I was a smaller kid than I am now, I used to play war on the highway. You know, sit in the
  4. back seat with a ruler or broomstick or just my hands, and annihilate the lady in the station
  5. wagon behind you, mow down the tin-knowing pedestrians on the sidewalks, blast that low-flying
  6. bomber (usually an innocent Piper Cub) out of the sky.
  7. But the best fantasy was to turn the headlights into ray guns, the side-view mirror into a
  8. blaster, the tail fins into rocket launchers.
  9. I've been in traffic tie-ups where I wished I still had that magical adolescent armory. So have
  10. drivers around me.
  11. You can see it in their faces.
  25. ENCL: 1 RPT. ACCID.
  26. 1 RPT. CORONER
  27. Frank Merwin refolded the letter, replaced it in its envelope, and laid it on the flange of the
  28. lamp stand, near the radio. He held his wife a little more tightly. Her sobbing had become less
  29. than hysterical, now that the terrible initial shock had somewhat worn. He managed to keep his own
  30. emotions pretty well in check, but then he had driven the Los Angeles area for some twenty years
  31. and was correspondingly toughened. When he finally spoke again there was as much bitterness in his
  32. voice as sorrow.
  33. "Geez, Myrt, oh, geez."
  34. He eased her down onto the big white couch, walked to the center of the room and paused there,
  35. hands clenching and unclenching, clasped behind his back. The woven patterns in the floor absorbed
  36. his attention.
  37. "Goddamn it, Myrtle, I told him! I told him! 'Look, son, if you insist on driving all the way to
  38. Diego by yourself, at least take the Pontiac! Have some sense,' I told him! I don't know what's
  39. with the kids these days, hon. You'd think he'd listen to me just this once, wouldn't you? Me, who
  40. once drove all the way from Indianapolis to L.A. and was challenged only twice on the way—only
  41. twice, Myrt, but no, he hadda be a big shot! 'Listen Dad. This is something I've got to work out
  42. for myself. With my own car,' he tells me! I knew he'd have trouble in that VW. And I often told
  43. him so, too.
  44. "But no, all he could think of to say was, Tops, the worst that can happen is I've gotta
  45. outmaneuver some other car, right? You've seen the way that bug corners, haven't you, huh? And if
  46. I get into a tough scrape, any other VW on the road is bound by oath to support me —in most
  47. actions anyway."
  48. "Whatta you tell a kid like that, Myrt? How do you get through to him?" His face registered utter
  49. bafflement. His wife's crying had slowed to a trickle. She was dabbing at her eyes with one of his
  50. old handkerchiefs.
  51. "I don't know either, dear. I still don't understand why he had to drive down there. Why couldn't
  52. he have taken the Trans, Frank? Why?"
  53. "Oh, you know why. What would his friends have said? 'Here's Bobby Merwin, too scared to drive his
  54. own rod,' and that sort of crud." His sarcasm was getting edgier. "Still felt he had to prove
  55. himself a man, the idiot! He'd already soloed on the freeways—why did he feel the need to try a
  56. cross-county expedition? But damn it, if he had to display his guts, why couldn't he have done so
  57. in the big car? Not even a professionally customized VW can mount much stuff.
  58. "And on top of everything else, you'd think he'd have had the sense to shy of! that kind of an
  59. argument? He had Driver's Training! Who ever heard of a VW disputing position with a Cad—a
  60. file:///F|/rah/Alan%20Dean%20Foster/Foster,%20...20Dean%20-%20With%20Friends%20Like%20These.txt (17 of 89) [7/1/03 12:12:26 AM]
  61. Page 18
  62. file:///F|/rah/Alan%20Dean%20Foster/Foster,%20Alan%20Dean%20-%20With%20Friends%20Like%20These.txt
  63. Marauder, no less! Where were his 'friends,' huh? I warned him about the light stretches between
  64. here and Diego, where flow is light, help is more than a hornblast away and some psycho can
  65. surprise you from behind an on-ramp!"
  66. He paused to catch his breath, walked back to the lamp stand, and picked up the letter. Familiar
  67. with the contents, he glanced at it only briefly this time. He offered it to his wife but she
  68. declined, so he returned it to the stand.
  69. "You know what I have to do now, I suppose?"
  70. She nodded, sniffling.
  71. "Bob was taking that gift to a friend in Diego. I'm bound to see that it's delivered."
  72. She looked up at him without much hope. She knew Frank.
  73. "I don't suppose—"
  74. He shook his head. His expression was gentle but firm.
  75. "No, hon. I'm taking it down myself. I refuse to ship it and I certainly won't ride the Trans. Not
  76. after all these years. No, I'm going down the same way Bob went, by the same route. I'll have the
  77. J.J. tuned first, though."
  78. She looked around dully, plucking fitfully at the delicate covering of the couch.
  79. "I suppose you'll at least take it in to—"
  80. "Hector? Certainly. In spite of what he charges he's damn well worth the money. Best mechanic
  81. around. I enjoy doing business with him. Know I'm getting my credit's worth, at least. We couldn't
  82. have me going somewhere else—now could we? Wouldn't want him to get the idea we're prejudiced or
  83. something. I've been going to him for, oh, five years. Almost forgotten what he is—"
  84. "Going all the way down to Diego, eh, Mr. Merwin?" said the wiry chicano. He was trying to rub
  85. some of the grease off his hands. The filthy rag he was using already appeared incapable of taking
  86. on any more of the tacky blue-black gunk.
  87. "Yeah. So you'll understand, Hector, when I say the J.J.'s got to be in tiptop shape,"
  88. "Ciertamente! You want to open her up, please?"
  89. Frank nodded and moved over to where the J.J. rested,'just inside the rolled-up armor-grille
  90. entrance to the big garage. He slid into the deep pile of the driver's bucket, flipped the three
  91. keys on the combination ignition, and then jabbed the hood-release switch. As soon as the hood
  92. started up he climbed out, leaving the keys in the On position. Hector was already bent over the
  93. car's power plant, staring intently into the works.
  94. "Well, Mr. Merwin, from what I can see your engine at least is in excellent condition, yes,
  95. excellent! You want me to fill 'er up?"
  96. Frank nodded wordlessly. He wasn't at all surprised at the mechanic's rapid inspection of the
  97. engine. After all, the J.J. had been given the best of professional care and the benefits of his
  98. own considerable work since he'd purchased her. Hector did not look up as he set about releasing
  99. the protective panels over the right-side .70 caliber.
  100. "If I may ask, how do you plan to go?" Frank had the big Meerschaum out and was tamping tobacco
  101. into it.
  102. "Hmm. I'll go down Burbank to the San Diego Freeway and get on there. It'd be a little faster to
  103. get on the Ventura, but on a trip of this length that little bit of time saved would be negligible
  104. and I don't see the point in fighting the interchange."
  105. Hector nodded approvingly. "Quite wise. You know, Mr. Merwin, you've got two pretty bad stretches
  106. on this trip. Very iffy, I read—about your son. I sorrow. The jornada de la muerte comes
  107. eventually to all of us."
  108. Frank paused in lighting the pipe. "Couldn't be helped," he said tightly. "Bob didn't realize what
  109. was —what he was getting into, that's all. I blame myself, too, but what could I do? He was
  110. eighteen and by law there wasn't anything I could do to hold him back. He simply took on more than
  111. he could handle."
  112. One of Hector's grease monks had wheeled over a bulky ammo cart. The mechanic waved the assistant
  113. off and proceeded about the loading himself. Frank appreciated the gesture.
  114. "A Cad, wasn't it?"
  115. "It was." He was leaning over the mechanic's shoulder, better to follow the loading process. Never
  116. could tell what you might have to do for yourself on the road. "What are you giving me? Explosive
  117. or armor-piercing?"
  118. "Mixed." Hector slammed down the box-load cover on the heavy gun. It clicked shut, locked. He
  119. moved away to get a small, curved ladder, wheeled it back. At the top he began checking over the
  120. custom roof turret. "Both, alternating sequence. True, it's more expensive, but after all your
  121. son's car was destroyed by a Marauder. A black one?"
  122. "Yes, that's right," said Frank, only mildly surprised. "How'd you find out?"
  123. "Oh, among the trade the word gets passed along. I know of this particular vehicle, I believe.
  124. Owner does a lot of his own work, I understand. That's tough to tangle with, Mr. Merwin. Might you
  125. be thinking of—" Frank shrugged, looked the other way. "Never know who you'll bump into on the
  126. roads these days, Hector. I've never been one to run from a dogfight."
  127. "I did not mean to imply that you would. We all know your driver's combat record, Mr. Merwin.There
  128. are not all that many aces living in the Valley."
  129. He gestured meaningfully at the side of the car. Eleven silhouettes were imprinted there. Four
  130. mediums, four compacts—crazy people. Gutsy, but crazy. Two sportscars—kids—a Jag and a Vet, as he
  131. recalled. He smiled in reminiscence. Speed wasn't everything. And one large gold stamping. He ran
  132. his hand over the impressions fondly. That big gold one, he'd gotten that baby on the legendary
  133. drive out from Indianapolis, back in '83—no, '82. The Imperial had been rough and, face it, he'd
  134. been lucky as hell, too young to know better. Ricochet shots were always against the odds, but
  135. hell, anyone could shoot at tires! So he'd thought twenty-odd years ago. Now he knew better—didn't
  136. he?
  137. He wondered if Bob had tried something equally insane.
  138. "Yes, well, you watch yourself, Mr. Merwin. A Marauder is bad news straight from the factory.
  139. Properly customized, it could mount enough stuff to take on a Greyhound busnought."
  140. "Don't worry about me, Hector. I can take care of myself." He was checking the nylon sheathing on
  141. the rear tires. "Besides, the JJ. mounts a few surprises of her own!"
  142. It was already warm outside, even at five in the morning. The weather bureau had forecast a high
  143. of of 101° for downtown L.A. He'd miss most of that, but even with air control and climate
  144. conditioning things could get hot. He turned on the climate-cool as he backed the blue sedan out
  145. of the garage, put it in Drive and rolled toward the Burbank artery.
  146. It was still too early for the real rush hour and he had little company on the feeder route as he
  147. moved past Van Nuys Boulevard toward the Sepulveda on-ramp. A Rambler at the light was slow in
  148. getting away at the change of signal. He blasted the horn once and the frantic driver of the
  149. heavily neutral-marked vehicle made haste to get out of his way. Theoretically all cars on the
  150. surface streets were equal. But some were more equal than others.
  151. The Sepulveda on-ramp was an excellent one for entering the system for reasons other than merely
  152. being an easier way to pass through the Ventura interchange. Instead of sloping upward as most on-
  153. ramps did, it allowed the driver to descend a high hill. This enabled older cars to pick up a lot
  154. of valuable acceleration easily and also provided the driver with an aerial overview of the
  155. traffic pattern below.
  156. He passed the commuter car park at the Kester Trans station. It was just beginning to fill as the
  157. more passive commuters parked their personal vehicles in favor of the public Trans. He felt a
  158. surge of contempt, the usual reaction of the independent motorist to milk-footed driver's
  159. willfully abandoning their vehicular freedom for the crowding and crumpling of the mass-transit
  160. systems. What sort of person did it take, he wondered for the umpteenth time, to trade away his
  161. birthright for simple sardine-can safety? The country was definitely losing its backbone. He shook
  162. his head woefully as his practiced eye gauged the pattern shifting beneath him.
  163. Mass Trans had required and still required a lot of money. One way in which the governments
  164. involved (meaning those of most industrial, developed nations) went about obtaining the necessary
  165. amounts was to cut back the expensive motorized forces needed to regulate the far-flung freeway
  166. systems. As the cutbacks increased it gradually became accepted custom among the remaining
  167. overworked patrols to allow drivers to settle their own disputes. This custom was finalized by the
  168. Supreme Court's handing down of the famous Briver vs. Matthews and the State of Texas decision of
  169. '79, in which it was ruled that all attempts to regulate interstate, nonstop highway systems were
  170. in direct violation of the First Amendment.
  171. Any motorist who didn't feel up to potential arguments was provided a safe, quiet alternative
  172. means of transportation in the new Mass Trans systems, most of which ran down the center and sides
  173. of the familiar freeway routes, high above the frantic traffic. Benefits were immediate. Less
  174. pollution from even the fine turbine-steam-electric engines of the private autos, an end to many
  175. downtown parking problems in the big cities—and more. For the first time since their inception the
  176. freeways, even at rush hour, became negotiable at speeds close to those envisioned by their
  177. builders. And psychiatrists began to advise driving as excellent therapy for persons .afflicted
  178. with violent or even homicidal instincts.
  179. There were a few—un-American dirty commie pinko symps, no doubt—who decried the resultant
  180. proliferation of "argumentative" devices among high-powered autos. Some laughable folk even talked
  181. of an "arms" race among automakers. German cars made their biggest incursions into foreign markets
  182. in decades. Armor plating, bulletproof glassalloy, certain weaponry—how else did those nuts expect
  183. a decent man to Drive with Confidence?
  184. He gunned the engine and the supercharged sedan roared down the on-ramp, gathering unnecessary but
  185. impressive momentum as it went. Frank had always believed in an aggressive entrance. Let 'em know -
  186. where you stand right away or they'll ride all over you. The tactic was hardly needed in this
  187. instance—there were only two other cars in his entrance pattern, both in the far two lanes.
  188. He switched slowly until he was behind them, look ing into rear- and side-view mirror carefully
  189. for f ast-approaching others. The lanes behind were clear and he had no trouble attaining the
  190. fourth lane of the five. Safer here. Plenty of room for feisty types to pass on either side and he
  191. could still maintain a decent speed without competing with dragsters. He pushed the JJ. up to an
  192. easy seventy-five miles per, settled back for the long drive.
  193. He spotted only two, wrecks as he sped smoothly through the Sepulveda Pass—about normal for this
  194. early in the day. The helicrane crew were probably in the process of changing shifts, so these
  195. wrecks would lie a bit longer than at other, busier times of day.
  196. His first view of action came as he approached the busy Wilshire on-ramps. Two compacts squared
  197. off awkwardly. The slow lane was occupied by a four-door Toyota. A Honda coupe, puffing mightily
  198. to build speed up the on-grade, came off the ramp at a bad position. It required one or the other
  199. to slow for a successful entrance and the sedan, having superior position, understandably refused
  200. to be the one. Instead of taking the quiet course, the Honda maintained its original approach
  201. speed and fired an unannounced broadside from its small—.25 caliber, Frank judged— window-mounted
  202. swivel gun. The sedan swerved crazily for a moment as its driver, startled, lost control for a few
  203. seconds. Then it straightened out and regained its former attitude. Frank and the cars behind him
  204. slowed to give the combatants plenty of lane space in which to operate.
  205. The armor glass was taking the attack and the sedan began to return fire—about equal, standard
  206. factory equipment, he guessed. They were already reaching the end of the entrance lane.
  207. Desperately, refusing to concede the match, the coupe cut sharply at the nose of the sedan. The
  208. sedan's owner swerved easily into the second lane and then cut tightly back. At this angle his
  209. starboard gun bore directly on the coupe. A loud bang heralded a shattered tire. With a short,
  210. almost slow-motion bump, the coupe hit the guardrail and flipped over out of sight. In his
  211. rearview mirror Frank could just make out the first few wisps of smoke as he shot past the spot.
  212. Now that the fight was over, Frank floored the accelerator again, throwing the victorious driver a
  213. fast salute. It was returned gracefully. Considering his limited stuff, the fellow had done very
  214. well. He'd handled that figure C with ease, but the maneuver would have been useless against a
  215. larger car. Frank's own, for example. Still, compact drivers were a special breed and often made
  216. up for their lack of power, engine, and fire in sheer guts. He still watched Don Railman and his
  217. Supersub religiously on the early Sunday Tele, even though the ratings were down badly from last
  218. season. He'd also never forget that time when a Weekly Carippefs Telemanual with old Ev Kelly had
  219. done a special on some hand-tooled Mighty Mite, low bore, cut down, with the Webcor antitank gun
  220. cleverly concealed in the front trunk. No, it paid not to take the compacts, even the subs, too
  221. lightly.
  222. He passed the Santa Monica interchange without trouble. In fact, the only thing resembling a
  223. confrontation he had on the whole L.A. portion of the drive occurred a few minutes later as he
  224. swept past the Los Angeles Sub-International Airport rampings. A new Vet, all shiny and gold,
  225. blasted up behind him. It stayed there, tailgating. That in itself was a fighting provocation. He
  226. could see the driver clearly— a young girl, probably in her late teens. About Bob's age, he
  227. thought tightly. No doubt, Daddy dear had bought the bomb for her. She honked at him sharply,
  228. insistently. He ignored her. She could pass him to either side with ease. Instead she fired a low
  229. burst of tracers across his rear deck. When he resolutely continued to ignore her she pouted, then
  230. pulled alongside. Giggling, she threw him an obscene gesture which even his not-so-archaic mind
  231. could identify. He jerked hard on the wheel, then back. Her haughty expression disappeared
  232. instantly, to be replaced by one of fright. When she saw it was merely a feint on his part, she
  233. smiled again, although much less arrogantly, and shot ahead at a good hundred miles per.
  234. Stupid kid better watch her manners, never live to make 20,000 miles. Maybe he should have given
  235. her a lesson, burnt off a tire, perhaps. Oh, well. He had a long way to drive. Let someone else
  236. play teacher.
  237. He became quiet and watchful as he left Santa Ana and entered the Irvine area. There was little
  238. commuter traffic here and only a few harmless beachers this early in the day. He saw only one car
  239. in the Cad's class and that was an old yellow Thunderhood. Wasn't sure whether or not to be
  240. disappointed or relieved as he pulled into the San Clemente rest stop for breakfast. He could have
  241. eaten at home but preferred to slip out without waking MyrTle. He'd have a couple of eggs, some
  242. toast and jam, and enjoy a view of the Pacific along with his coffee despite the low clouds which
  243. had been rolling in for the last twenty minutes. He hoped it wouldn't rain, even though rain would
  244. cut the heat. Weather was one reason he always avoided the safer but longer desert routes.
  245. Thundershowers inland were forecast and even the best tactical driver could be outmatched in a
  246. heavy downpour. He preferred to be in a situation where his talents could operate without
  247. complications wished on him by nature.
  248. A few warm drops, fat and heavy, hit him as he left the diner. It had grown much darker and the
  249. humidity was fierce. Still, Irvine was behind him now. Best to make speed down to Diego and get
  250. home before dark.
  251. He had only the well-policed Camp Pendleton lanes ahead and then the near-deserted Oceanside to La
  252. Jolla run before he'd hit any real traffic again. Contrary to early predictions, the California
  253. population had spread inland instead of along the largely state-owned coast. If he'd had sense to
  254. buy that hundred acres near Mojave before the airport had gone in there...
  255. On the left he could see the old Presidential Palace shining on its solitary hill. He waved
  256. nostalgically, then speeded up slightly as he approached the Pendleton cutoff.
  257. The drizzle remained so light he didn't even bother with wipers. Pendleton was passed quickly and
  258. he had no reason to stop in Oceanside. Soon he was cruising among rolling, downy hills, mellow in
  259. the diffused sunlight. A few cattle were the only living creatures in evidence, along with a few
  260. big crows circling lazily overhead in the moist air. Once a cycle pack roared noisily past, long
  261. twenties damp with dew. Two tricycles headed up the front and rear of the pack, but the ugly
  262. snouts of their recoil-less rifles were covered against a possible downpour. They took no notice
  263. of him, rumbling past at a solid ninety-five miles an hour. He had no wish to tangle with a gang,
  264. not in this empty territory. A good driver could knock out three or four of the big Harley-
  265. Davidsons and Yamaharas easily enough, but the highly maneuverable bikes could swarm over anything
  266. smaller than a bus or trailer with ease, magnifying the effect of their light weaponry.
  267. Maybe he could buy some land out here. He gazed absently at the green-and-gold hills, devoid of
  268. housing tracts and supermarkets. Not another Mojave, maybe, but still...
  269. A sharp honking snapped his attenion reflexively to his mirrors. He recognized the license of the
  270. big black coupe almost at the instant he identified the make and model. You're south of your
  271. territory, fella, he thought grimly. His hands clenched tightly on the wheel as he slid over one
  272. lane.
  273. The Cad pulled up beside him, preparatory to passing. He judged the moment precisely, then tripped
  274. a switch on his center console. The portside flame thrower erupted in a jet of orange fiame. The
  275. Cad jerked like a singed kitten. Instantly Frank cut over to the far lane, putting as much
  276. distance as possible between him and the big car, staying slightly ahead of the other.
  277. A long dark streak showed clearly on the coupe's front, a deep gash in the tire material. The Cad
  278. would have trouble if it tried any sharp moves in his direction now, and Frank saw no problem in
  279. holding his present position. Now he could duck at the first off-ramp if need arose. He activated
  280. the roof turret, an expensive option, but one which had proven its worth time and again. Myrtle
  281. had opted for the big grenade launcher, but Frank and the GM salesman bad convinced her that while
  282. showiness might be fine for impressing the neighbors, on the road it was performance that counted.
  283. The twin fifties in the turret commenced hammering away at the Cad, nicking big chips of
  284. armorglass and battle sheathing from its front. Frank was feeling confident until a violent
  285. explosion rocked him nastily and forced him to throw emergency power to the steering. Frightened,
  286. he glanced over his shoulder. Thank God for the automatic sprinklers! The rear of his car above
  287. the left wheel was completely gone, as was most of the rear deck. Twisted, blackened metal and
  288. torn insulation smoked and groaned. A look at the Cad confirmed his worst fears and sent more
  289. sweat pouring down his shirt collar. No wonder this Marauder had acquired such a reputation! In
  290. place of the standard heavy Cad machine guns, a Mark IV rocket launcher protruded from the rear
  291. trunk! Fortunately the shot had hit at a bad angle or he'd be missing a wheel and his ability to
  292. maneuver would have been drastically, perhaps fatally, reduced. He did an S just in time. Another
  293. rocket shrieked past his bumper.
  294. The turret fifties were doing their job, but it was slow, too slow! Another rocket strike would
  295. finish him and now the Cad had its big guns going, too. He wished to hell he was in the cab of a
  296. big United- Truckers tractor-trailer, high above the concrete, with another driver and a gunner on
  297. the twin 60mm's. A crack appeared in his rear window as the Cad's guns concentrated their fire. He
  298. turned and twisted, accelerated and slowed, not daring to give his opponent another clear shot
  299. with those Mark IV's.
  300. Chance time, Frank, baby. Remember Salt Lake City!
  301. He cut hard left. The Cad cut right to get behind him. At the proper (yes, yes!) second he dropped
  302. an emergency switch.
  303. The rear backup lights dropped off the J.J. At the same time a violent crrumpp! threw him forward
  304. so hard he could feel the cross-harness bite into his chest. Fighting desperately for control and
  305. cursing all the way, he slammed into the resilient center divider with a jolt that rattled his
  306. teeth, two wheels spinning crazily off the pavement, then cut all the way back across the five
  307. lanes. Fighting a busted something all the way, he managed to wrestle the battered sedan to a
  308. tired halt on the gravel shoulder.
  309. Panting heavily, he undid the safety harness, staggered out of the car, bracing himself against
  310. the metal sides. Behind him, a quarter mile or so down the empty road, a thick plume of roiling
  311. black smoke billowed up from a pile of twisted metal, plastics and ceramics, all intertwined with
  312. bright orange flame. The big bad black Cad was quite finished. He took one step in its direction,
  313. then stopped, dizzied by the effort. No driver could survive that inferno. In his eagerness to get
  314. behind the sedan, the Cad's driver had shot over at least one, possibly both of the proximity
  315. mines Frank had released from where his backup lights had been. Maybe revenge was an outdated
  316. commodity today, but he still felt exhilarated. And Myrtle might complain initially but he knew
  317. damn well she'd be pleased inside.
  318. He became aware of something wet trickling down his cheek, more than could have come from the
  319. sporadically dripping sky. His hand told him a piece of his left ear was missing. The blood was
  320. staining his good driving blouse. Absently he dabbed at the nick witk a handkerchief. His rear
  321. glass must have gone at the last possible minute. A look confirmed it, showing two neat holes and
  322. a third questionable one in his rear window. Umm. He'd had closer calls before—and this one was
  323. worth it. At least there'd be one license plate to lay on Bob's grave.
  324. He sighed. Better stop off in Carlsbad and get that ear taken care of. Damnation, if only that boy
  325. had paid some attention in Driver's Ed. Eighteen years old and he'd never learned what his old man
  326. had known for years.
  327. Be safe. Drive Offensively.
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