The Man who Broke the Speed Limit

By Dale Cozort

© by Dale Cozort, 2011

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Dale Cozort in 2011, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.

We called it the twilight time later, after factors beyond our control shattered it. The Change shook planes out of the sky and slowed our world to a walk on March 17 of year 0. Some people call it year 1, but that’s silly. By the old reckoning it was 1998. The twilight time was that brief period — a couple of weeks some places, a month or two in others, where life clung to the old ways, and it looked for just a little while as though the Change might not totally rip apart the fabric of those old ways, even in the little college town of Port Louis, sixty miles west of Chicago.

Of all the people who fought so hard to stitch the old fabric back together, Jim Stevens, the man who broke the speed limit, stands out most in my mind. We’ll get to him in a bit, but first let me set the scene of Port Louis and the twilight times.

The thirty-thousand plus people of Port Louis spent an exhausting three days after the Change dealing with the immediate series of crises — getting trapped people out of cars, putting out fires with bucket brigades that sometimes stretched nearly a half mile from the Kishwaukee river. I don’t remember much of those three days. It’s a blur of flame and blood and broken glass to me, as it is to all of the survivors I’ve talked to.

The twilight time I remember. I don’t know about most towns our size, but Port Louis had a surprising competent city government. Jim Falcon was still mayor. Jim is a smart guy. Maybe a little too fast to tip a bottle, but energetic, and he knew how to find smart people and let them do what needed to get done. He got police and police auxiliaries to the food stores, WalMart and the two Eagle groceries, in time to stop the beginning of riots there. Just as importantly, he got people to the banks quickly.

As we saw in the weeks of the twilight time, dollars had power far beyond the logical, and Mayor Falcon made sure that the physical dollars in those banks remained there as everyone in town suddenly became poor. Lawyer, doctor, industrialist. They suddenly had only the cash in their wallets and maybe a little stashed in a drawer or a coin jar — all of them. Everybody. The ones and zeroes of in bank computers that made up most of our money supply went away — might just as well have been on the moon. And for a while, in the twilight time, people would do almost anything to add to their dwindling supply of the intrinsically worthless green pieces of paper that kept the old world functioning — work long hours at the improvised bicycle-driven pumps that kept up some semblance of water pressure in spite of old wasteful habits some clung to, spend long hours clearing the roads.

People clung to the old habits, the old routine. The lady across the street worried incessantly and vocally about losing her job in downtown Chicago. Walter Nordberg, the little guy who went around ticketing car in the Port Louis downtown, kept up his ticketing for a week after the Change, crowding ticket after ticket under the wipers of cars that would never move again. When they made him stop, he walked the streets looking stunned and lost.

The twilight time was cold in northern Illinois. I don’t know what the weather would have been ordinarily, but burning cities to the east of us turned the air hazy even where we were, with the prevailing winds pushing the worst of the toxic mix away from us. Houses gradually got colder as their thermal mass lost heat. We added coats and blankets and sleeping bags, but we could never get warm. Cold radiated off the walls of the now nearly freezing homes. In spite of all of the talk of food and water shortages, I believe that more people died of hypothermia than anything else in the twilight times. Others died of carbon monoxide poisoning or in fires trying to stay warm or cook with improvised fires in bathtubs or sinks.

At least food didn’t spoil, not quickly. We ate the perishable food first, cooking microwave dinners over improvised steam pots set over fires fed by siphoned gasoline. The city set up a steam pot every couple of blocks, probably to keep people from burning any more houses down with improvised attempts to cook over candles or fires in bathtubs and sinks.

Hanging over us as we clawed and survived, was one brute-simple sword of Damocles: the hordes from Chicago. Near three million people in the city itself. More millions in the surrounding suburbs. Tentacles of those suburbs stretched out and became swords hanging over us in their own right. Aurora, thirty miles away, with nearly two hundred thousand people of its own. Naperville, forty miles away, with nearly a hundred and fifty thousand. Unsupportable masses lurked within walking distance of us, masses beyond saving, masses that could only survive the next few months as human locusts, descending on and destroying any viable clusters of humans within their reach, dwindling fast as they wandered, yes, but still overwhelming as they surged in frantic pursuit of food and safety.

We searched the roads and fields to the east with telescopes set on the top floors of the tallest building in Port Louis, a student high rise that reached twelve stories above the flat terrain and ranch-style houses of the town. Police and police auxiliary units armed with a motley mix of riot gear, axes, butcher knives, and drywall hammers waited grimly for the call to man choke-points between our town and the hordes.

We waited as the dim days and long nights of the twilight times dragged on. Anything with wheels became precious, ways of moving people and goods a little faster. Bicycles, shopping carts, skateboards, even wheelchairs were all sought after and sometime fought over. Mayor Falcon sent well-armed groups of bicycle messengers to the nearest towns in the line of march of the hordes and set up signals, patterns of flames and smoke set up on the highest point of those towns so we could observe them by telescope from the high-rise.

The town and world got bigger. Four miles was no longer ten or fifteen minutes away. It was an hour of slogging through the cold and the rain, a trek that raised blisters on feet unaccustomed to walking, that for the first week or two left most people exhausted and often unable to walk the next day. We were unbelievably soft at the beginning of the twilight time — pampered. The Change divided us. Some of us grew hard working to survive. Others sat in their freezing houses and waited for the old ways to come back, waited and died.

But enough about our twilight time.

I didn’t know Doctor Jim Stevens before the Change. He taught physics at the university, and town and university have surprising little to do with one another. I saw him for the first time the morning he broke the speed limit. He wasn’t a tall man, but his upright bearing gave an illusion of height. His face had on uncanny resemblance to the guy who played “Dr. Strangelove,” and I had an overwhelming feeling that his hand was about to jump up in a Nazi salute of its own accord. He, along with a group of two dozen students, stood at the bottom of a contraption made of two thick wires descending steeply from the top of the student high-rise, then arcing gently out across a tall telephone pole and from there to the ground. Dr Stevens and the students all wore Sweatshirts with a hand-lettered “Speed Limits” circled and with a line through it.

It was a beautiful sunny spring morning, with the haze from the fires temporarily lifted. Some people say it was April 1st. I think it was earlier. In any case, word had gotten around that something extraordinary was going to happen and spectators gathered, probably over a thousand of them. As was all too often the case, they clustered primarily by ethnic group: African American students here, Hispanics there, a smattering of Asians, primarily Chinese and Indian in their own clusters, and the townies in theirs. Staff from a nearby nursing home pushed their charges over in wheelchairs to see the event.

Dr. Stevens stood on an improvised stage. His voice — flat, Midwestern middle-American, carried across the crowd with six simple words. “We do not accept speed limits.”

He raised his hand, and a low, streamlined car-like shape nosed over the roof of the high-rise. It half-rolled, half-fell along the cables, picking up speed as gravity pulled it to earth. The cables turned that descent into forward motion, over the telephone pole, down to earth, and then along a straight, cleared stretch of road at a speed none of us had seen from a human-made object since the Change. The crowd hesitated, then cheered as the car kept going, gradually slowing, until it was nearly out of sight, rolling along in a futile, pointless, but glorious act of defiance. In the distance, I saw Walter Nordberg ride up to the ‘car’ on a bicycle once it stopped and write out one last ticket.

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