“Everything checks out,” the black-suited man with the scanning device said without a smile. “You’re clear. Proceed.”
“Thanks,” the driver of the space cab said with a nod as he piloted his cab through the gate to the governor’s mansion. He passed several miniature recorder-satellites, several of which bore the logos of holovid networks and interplanetary news services. He smiled wryly to himself. He knew there would be press. The human interest angle of the story was the only reason Governor Allon had agreed to this. But that was OK with Space Cabbie.
The yellow cab pulled up in front of the mansion, where a white-haired man was waiting, flanked by two men who must be bodyguards. The hair was probably artificially whitened; the governor was only sixty-six years old, and in this day and age, men didn’t start to lose their natural hair color until at least eighty. But the white mane made Allon look avuncular, and couldn’t hurt in getting votes.
The bodyguards made their own security check, then allowed Governor Allon to enter the space cab. Space Cabbie activated the meter and took off. “Where to, sir?” he asked with a grin.
The white-haired politician smiled. “New Philadelphia, the Hilton, cabbie,” he said. “Can you get me there in an hour?”
New Philadelphia was on Deimos, one of the twin moons of Mars. Space Cabbie had picked up Governor Allon at his mansion in Ontario, capital city of the fifty-third American State of Canada, Earth. “No problem,” the cabbie said, grinning.
Halfway out, Space Cabbie caught Governor Allon peering at his face in the rearview mirror, as if straining to remember. He chuckled a little. “Don’t bother, Governor,” he said. “You’ll never remember me, I’m sure. I was just another cab driver.”
The governor laughed as well. “And I was a young attorney with the firm of Loring, Horton and MacRae,” he said. “Forty years ago.”
“I remember as though it were yesterday,” Space Cabbie said. “You were my first fare, Governor. I want to thank you for agreeing to be my last.”
“Glad to do it,” Governor Allon said. Space Cabbie glanced out the window, at the mini-rec satellites following the cab. Anything for votes, he said to himself.
“Here you go, Governor,” Space Cabbie said not too much time later, pulling up in front of the Hilton in New Philadelphia. There were, of course, holovid crews waiting.
“With five minutes to spare,” Governor Allon said appreciably. “Excellent job, cabbie. What do I owe you?”
“Two-thirty-five,” the cabbie said, reading the figure on the meter. It read two hundred and thirty five IBU, which stood for International Bank Units, the current monetary system in place on Earth and the colonized planets.
“Here you go,” Governor Allon said, handing a small, shiny plastic card to the cabbie. “Keep the change.” The governor was careful to let the holovid recording drones see that the card was a five hundred IBU note, complete with President Gore’s picture.
“Thank you, Governor,” the cabbie said, tucking the card into his pocket. It was a grand gesture for the cameras, he knew, but since he was being put out to pasture, he was in no position to turn up his nose at a tip of more than two hundred and fifty boo. He figured a lot of it had come from his own taxes, anyway. He punched the button that illuminated the off duty sign, and took off for the cab company office in Metropolis on Earth.
“Just saw you on the holovid,” the dispatcher’s voice came through the telecom on the cab dashboard. “Nice tip.”
“Well, you know I don’t share my tips, Danny,” the cabbie said back, “so don’t salivate over it.”
“Don’t get high and mighty, just because you’re retiring,” Danny snarled back. “Try to get the cab back in one piece, awright?”
“Right,” Space Cabbie said, and clicked off the telecom. He leaned back against the seat and sighed. Retiring. This would be the last time he drove old #7433. Some of the younger cabbies, Jud and Jeph and Mary Lu and the others, had wanted to throw him a retirement party, but he had gratefully declined. He hadn’t wanted to be reminded of the fact that he would no longer be a space cabbie. For forty years, it had been his whole life. Now it seemed that his life was over. Damn the IHC’s mandatory retirement age, anyway. So what if he were seventy-five years old? He felt as young and spry as a kid of forty.
Oh, well, Space Cabbie sighed resignedly. You can’t fight the world. He watched the stars flash past his windshield, the beautiful blue marble of Earth looming closer and closer.
“Here you go, Danny,” Space Cabbie said, pushing his envelope through the slot in the glass cage. “My last fare envelope.”
“Sorry I didn’t arrange for a brass band,” the little dispatcher snarled in a metallic voice. Danny was a humanoid robot; his name was short for Digital Android, E Class. His metal body stood barely four feet tall. He had replaced the old human dispatcher eighteen years ago; Space Cabbie, while not a robophobe, had never gotten used to Danny. The android dispatcher’s abrasive personality had always rubbed the cabbie the wrong way.
“So long, Danny,” Space Cabbie said, and turned to go.
“Hey, wait!” the little robot snarled. The cabbie stopped and turned. The robot hesitated, then said, “Take care of yourself,” in as friendly a voice as the cabbie had ever heard him use. A slow grin spread across the cabbie’s face.
“You too, Danny,” he said. “Lay off the forty-weight stuff.”
“G’wan, geddouda here!” Danny snarled, back to his old abusive self. Chuckling, Space Cabbie left the building and walked out into the bright sunshine. He looked up at the sun and began to feel wistful. How many suns had he seen in his time in space? How many stars, how many planets? His time served in the war, and after that his forty years piloting a space cab, all over now, all done. What was left for him? Write his memoirs? He laughed at that. Fine bunch of reading that would make. Seventy-five years old, he could expect to live another thirty-five. But what for? He had never married, he had no children. No one was waiting for him to come home.
The cabbie stopped in mid-step. He thought he heard footsteps just behind him. He turned quickly, but saw no one. It must have been his imagination.
Pushing the thought out of his mind, he kept on walking.
The ex-cabbie looked up and found that, without consciously intending it, he had walked to the Space Museum. He smiled in fond remembrance. He hadn’t been here in years, although he had come to the museum often as a child. He walked swiftly up the steps to the front door. It would do him good to view the old relics and exhibits again, perhaps help clear his head, help him figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
The museum had increased security recently, ever since the attacks by Uranian terrorists in another part of the city. The former Space Cabbie stood patiently in line, awaiting his turn under the scan-rays. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a man all in black, watching him. He turned his head quickly, and there was nobody there. His imagination again. Forty years piloting a space cab, and now he was starting to see things?
The erstwhile cabbie wandered through the museum, taking in the primitive technology of the exhibits with awe. He paused at an exhibit he hadn’t remembered from his childhood visits — an ancient satellite, so primitive it might have been put together by cavemen. He peered at the bizarre symbol on the side of it; a large letter R, with the letters TV much smaller next to it. What could that possibly mean? He read the description on the holocard in front of the exhibit, and shook his head in wonder. So that’s what it meant.
As he lingered before the exhibit on the Justice League Satellite, the former Space Cabbie got that queer feeling again. He strained his eyes as far to the left as he could, without turning his head. He was sure he saw a man all in black, watching him, studying him. He whirled around to confront the man — and no one was there. He drew strange looks from other museum visitors; shyly, he backed away.
It was happening. Forty years of driving a space cab, and it was finally happening to him. He was coming unhinged.
Suddenly, proudly, he drew himself up to his full height. He refused to believe that was what was happening. He trusted his instincts. They had gotten him through the war, through innumerable close scrapes as a space cabbie. They couldn’t have deserted him now. He had to believe they were as sharp as ever. That meant someone was following him, so the best thing to do would be to let that someone find him.
Casually he made his way to the side exit doors. He stopped to look at exhibits along the way, spending ten minutes admiring the wax figures of Rick Purvis, Karel Sorenson, and Homer Glint. He smiled as he recalled the adventure he had shared with them, and with others. (*) That had been one of the high points of his career. Finally, with the aloof air of a visitor who had tired of the museum, he made his way to the side door. He walked slowly down the street, away from the bright bustle of the Space Museum. He had not gone two blocks when he heard a gruff voice behind him.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Mystery in Space: Star Rovers: The Scavenger Hunt of Space.]
“Into the alley, cabbie,” the voice snarled. He felt the cold barrel of a hand-laser in his back. “I’ve got a tip for you that’s long overdue.”