Volume 15, Number 02, Spring, 1997


The Road Men

By Zach Smith

The weekly supply carrier was overdue.

McMurty listened to his men grumble. Then he sent them and their great lumbering crawler out onto the alien, rocky barrens to scoop up stone and sand, digest it, combine it with polymer from great holding tanks, and lay down a spoor-like ribbon of clean new road. They could work another day without the updated map. But that was hardly McMurty’s concern—they’d run out of food and water in two days unless the carrier showed. Being twenty-two days out of Heelston, with the fastest vehicle a thirty-mile-per-hour service shuttle…

The evening meal was subdued, furtive looks from man to man knowing that something dangerous was happening to them. Not why; just that it was. And as a choir falls silent when the words are used up, they sat quietly and looked at McMurty, waiting for the reassuring expected of leaders.

“Carrier’s overdue,” McMurty at last intoned to break the tension. Then, dutiful words: “Sure it’ll be here tomorrow.” More silence, then one of the men finally cleared his throat tentatively and said, “But what if…”

“No!” McMurty said. “No what if. The Road Department knows its stuff.”

There was no work the next day, as there was no supply carrier and no new map. And idle men tend to bring up complaints from their gut like old mucous, things not usually voiced but always understood way inside.

“Why do they take the old maps back each week?”

“Policy. Possible litter. Waste prevention rules.”

“And the maps don’t even really tell you where you are.”

“No need to know. You’re here to work, not sightsee.”

“Only a week’s food and water at a time.”

“Fuel and polymer take up lots of space; no room on the supply carriers for extra food. Procedures.”

“And not one of us here knows this territory.”

“Selection policy. People get moved around.”

“And what about these damn slow vehicles?”

“No need for racing out here.”

“Why such a short range on our radios?”

“Rules on emf power.”

“Why do they make the rules so far away from the actual work?”


When humanity exported itself into the far reaches of space, propelled by its achievement technology—that vast body of knowledge and things generally equated with progress—its other achievement called bureaucracy went along.

There is no measure of whether one of these achievements outraced the other into the cosmos; such is unimportant. Nor is there need to ponder any right or wrong which might attach to them—like any of man’s things, such as cruelty or striving, they simply are.

Hunger and thirst, laid on idleness, grew an edgy desperation onto the road men. McMurty broke up a squabble in the afternoon of the fourth workless day, which he might have joined himself had he not understood and feared the probable outcome.

Once the giant star had finished baking their landscape for the day, McMurty herded the men from the bunk crawler onto the cooling barrens, to save power. A batteried camplight substituted for this pioneer world’s lack of a natural satellite. He distributed the evening’s small water ration.

The chatter was not edgy, McMurty figured because the earlier tiff had blown off some steam. Others would come, he knew. But at least for now the men seemed mostly interested in sleep, as the talk trailed off.

A fellow named Corey heard the sound first. A slight machine-rustling, which had apparently touched the outer edge of his hearing, somewhere on the road they had been laying for weeks now. He mouthed the word “listen” softly, then cupped a hand to an ear and waited for someone to agree. Minutes passed.

And then, one by one, the others nodded in silence. Then they stood, anticipating. Distinct now, machine noise, and growing—oh, thank God, most definitely growing way off on the endless rocky sandy reaches, where it had been decided once upon a time in committee that a road must certainly be laid to connect the base at Heelston with the mines at Endapol.

The camplight showed smiles all around.

“See?” McMurty said. “Supply carrier. You damn fools—lost your trust in the Road Department.”

Then, in that flood of emotion humans feel when given back their lives, nervous laughter broke a thick tension into bits of imaginary glass that fell in a dying rain onto the still-warm ground. There was never reason for jubilance on the barrens; there was the job, joking and laughter, and light evening pleasures—nothing more.

Closer pushed the noise, and cheers gave way to comfort and a renewed sense of security. Closer till whooshing became rumbling, tangible against the soles of their feet. McMurty divided the remainder of the water among his men to celebrate.

For the ten hours of night the thundering mounted. No one slept.

When the giant star made morning on the horizon, they spotted the machine. Then saw more of it, broadening into view, at last enough to identify. No, them—clearly there was more than one machine.

And no supply carrier among them.

McMurty and his road men stood cold and rigid on the smooth, unobtrusively colored surface they had made just days before, watching the approach. Watching for the better part of an hour, as the machines lumbered toward them like great mythical animals. To within twenty feet of where they stood. With a great gasping, the engines powered down in unison.

A minute later, a weather-toughened man climbed down to face McMurty. He surveyed the equipment standing idle behind McMurty’s men, then spoke:

“Lewellyn. Road removal and landscape restoration. Due to meet a supply carrier from Endapol today.”

McMurty looked hard into Lewellyn’s eyes, speechless, measuring the air he swallowed as metabolism—using up. Finally, Lewellyn’s eyes began to tint with concern, a trace of wildness beginning somewhere. Reaching to his belt, he grabbed his hip-pack and took a swallow of water to wash the sudden dryness from his throat.

For endless time, the two men measured one another and themselves against the vast scorched dry sand dead rock landscape neither of them knew.

McMurty felt himself lunge.

 Code of Regulations
Roads, Waterways, Skyways, Space Routes
Regulation 811632-D: Road Department
Revision 2621: 08.18.23
Applies to: Road Construction
Road Removal and Landscape Restoration
Revised Section: 4336(c)(4)(B)(1)
Revision: In service sectors wherein no established supply
centers are located within one day's travel distance by a
Code 818B or 1016XR or 2277D service shuttle…

Zach Smith lives in Louisiana. A review of his recent collection, Cries at Dusk and Other Tales, appears on page 14 in this issue.

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