Hijack: Part 4

4.

The cursory inspection lasted long enough for Marla to glance at the rig, and admit it was going to be impossible to tell anything. Gail took it as the signal to close her mouth, and instruct her to set up her car for forward escort duty. Before long, the two were working their way out of the lot, one after the other with “Wide-Load” signs hanging off their vehicles and yellow-beacons warning of their proximity.

Gail was glad Marla had slept most of the way to Schaumburg; the faster they got home, the faster they’d get ahead of the inevitable shit-storm the NHSB would kick up to further their agenda. Fat chance, she knew, the morning edition would already be lambasting Lone-Wolfe, and probably the whole profession, and threatening them with bullshit intimidation tactics. That was all the NHSB was good for in this day and age. They had political connections, sure, but they were just that, connections. Local 413 had the same connections and more pull with them. Kick-backs and bribes had kept the Unions strong for a century. That wasn’t looking to change now.

Even so, there was still the nagging fear the impotent blow-hards might still destroy Lone-Wolfe. Especially if, as Gail suspected, M-T was behind the accident somehow. It would be hard to prove, and likely nothing would ever come of it, but if M-T’s bulldogs were on the warpath this wouldn’t be the only incident to occur. Corporate espionage was a way of life for entities like M-T Inc, legal teams the deploy-able smoke-screens that kept them safe.

Night turned once more to day, and the pair pulled into a rest-stop to relieve themselves and fuel-up on caffeinated beverages. Marla was looking more haggard as the minutes passed. Gail sensed she’d been wracking herself with some type of guilt. Wherever it had come from, she couldn’t allow it to stay. The pair leaned against the hood of the Chevy for Gail to smoke and stretch her legs.

“You know it’s not your fault, right?” She said, unceremoniously. Marla gave her a deranged look. “It’s not. I can see you blaming yourself for something you did or didn’t do. You’re thinking, maybe you didn’t top off the transmission fluid, or tighten a bolt on the steering-column, or something else utterly fucking trivial and now it’s somehow your fault.”

Marla’s left eye twitched, and she nodded.

Gail slugged back some cola, “Well, it’s not. So don’t think that. I need you fit to drive and to work. You and Darian are going to be all over this ’til you find out what the hell went wrong. I need you at your best. Ferrero’s death has nothing to do with you, so get over it.”

Marla’s face said her heart had been stung by a iron-rod. Gail admitted maybe she’d been too harsh, but only silently. The girl finally gave another nod, “I know it wasn’t my fault. But that’s what I keep thinking. I’m responsible for the fleet. If something goes wrong, it’s on me.”

“Technically, it’s on Darian,” Gail corrected callously. She recovered with a soft, “Sorry. What I mean is, accidents happen. Even if, by some extreme luck, what happened can be traced back to the garage, it’s no-one’s fault. If Ferrero couldn’t pull out of what happened, no-one could’ve. Even then, there’s no telling if his actions saved more lives than would’ve otherwise been lost.”

Marla considered her words carefully, “You’re saying it’s on the drivers if the rigs are running wrong?”

Gail shook her head, “No. I’m saying, even if the rigs are running wrong, it’s in the driver’s hands to keep the situation from getting worse. Most of us have driven long enough to know how to compensate in any situation. But shit happens. People get hurt, or die. This time it was Bud.”

Marla eyed her, “But you don’t think either of us are at fault?” Gail confirmed her thoughts. “Then what went wrong?”

“That’s what you’re going to find out.”

“No, what I mean is, what’s your best guess?”

“Oh.” She took a deep breathe, chest billowing and depressing. “Well, what I think’s a hell of a lot less important than the actual truth– whatever it may be.”

Marla seemed to connect various, mental dots. “Because M-T showing up and an accident the same day’s too coincidental?” Gail cocked an affirming brow. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Let’s just hope to fuck I’m wrong.”

Marla nodded, stared off until the pair broke for their vehicles and started on again.

By the time they reached the garage, the day was in full bloom again. Gail cleared the garage and backed the flat-bed tower in. Employees gathered to watch the rig’s ingress, each with the same, glazed and breathless expression Gail had experienced. She set Darian’s team to work pulling the wreck off the flat-bed while Marla grabbed shut-eye on a cot in her office. The pair were exchanging a few, last minute words when Walt Thacker waddled up, newspaper in-hand.

Gail was immediately boiling: the headline barely registered before her teeth were grinding. “Local shipper Lone-Wolfe’s non-compliance fuels NHSB debate.” She read and re-read the headline three and four times before looking up. Marla and Walter were standing beside one another, one red-eyed with exhaustion, the other wondering whether his best waddle was enough to flee from Gail’s imminent explosion. He shifted uncomfortably in place, bespectacled eyes massive and downcast behind their coke-bottle lenses.

Gail sensed the pair’s cringing for cover and managed to control herself. “Get back to work, Walter. Marla, sleep in here, or my rig, but I’ll be here too.”

Marla fished some headphones from a pocket, “I’ll be fine.”

She stuffed the buds in her ears, then fell onto the cot, and hid beneath the wool-blanket she’d been given. Walter waddled away, slightly faster than usual, not needing to be told twice to go. The last thing his heart need was another jog through terror. Gail’s office-door shut with a relieved sigh, glad that it wasn’t being slammed again.

She fell into her desk-chair, beyond exhausted. She wasn’t physically tired, sleep was out of the question anyway, but mentally drained. Swallowing her anger had taken more out of her than she’d thought, and coupled with the past couple days’ reality, it was a wonder she hadn’t collapsed yet. For the next couple hours, all she could think to do was sit at her desk drafting a press-release. Eventually the media would come to her asking for comment, and it was better to be prepared and ahead of things than get swept up and dogged by them. She’d have to be sympathetic toward Ferrero’s family, and the accident in general, but maintain a professional distance.

There would also have to be some mention of the investigation going on. After all, it was technically an industrial accident. Whether or not inspecting the vehicle herself would come back to bite her in the ass was less important than learning the truth. If someone else was responsible for the accident, or even Ferrero himself, it needed to be made clear to Darian’s team, then independently verified by an external source. Buddy’s Rig was the only avenue of truth left, and Gail’d be damned if someone else was going to be responsible for proving Lone-Wolfe’s innocence.

Time passed, Gail’s mind honed to a point. The release was typed up, revised, deleted whole, then rewritten and revised again. The whole process was a storm of clacking keys interrupted by various pauses to re-read what had been written. If Lone-Wolfe had the extra funds for a P-R department, Gail still wouldn’t have let them draft the release. This had to be in her own words, her own diction, to ensure it was as transparent as possible Most of all though, she had to ensure to keep any suppositions out and relay only facts. The accident had been widely reported on, but until she stated the company’s preliminary findings, no-one knew what had really happened.

She slipped on headphones, queued up their cam footage, and synced it to dispatch recordings. Everything had already been pulled during Darian’s review and included a report that detailed his observations and notes on his analysis. Gail had deliberately waited to read anything until after she’d drafted the release. Everything factual from her point of view would have to be stated differntly from Darian’s or else she risked public back-lash for confirmation bias.

The video player spooled forward with views of I-295 similar to what she’d seen the previous night. Aside from the growing daylight, the only differences were from their respective view-points of the rig. The fifth-wheel cam was stationary apart from road-turbulence and its effect on the electrical couplings. Likewise, the trailer-cam was monotonous, never-ending highway travel, as if staring out a car’s back-window, and roughly as entertaining and informative as it sounded.

Gail was focused on the dash-cam though; it and the transcript of the various warning codes. She skipped everything to a few minutes before the first code. In the headphones, Brianne’s autopilot-voice emitted various checks and code call-outs to drivers. They responded tinnier and more distant, but clear enough to be heard.

The first of Ferrero’s codes came, synced with an alert in Brianne’s chatter. “Ferrero. Looking for confirmation on a code-12.”

Gail heard the utter lack of worry in Brianne’s voice. Code 12 was an engagement of safety protocols. All rigs– all road-vehicles, actually– were equipped with crash-response systems that spooled real-time metrics into CPUs from sensors on the vehicles. Through them, hardwired safety-protocols engaged to tell which parts of the vehicle were near-collision and which ways the vehicle should compensate. Everything from pre-priming of brake-lines to auto-retard of the vehicle’s speed was calculated and queued up to ensure any possible accident was no worse than it had to be.

All of this happened within a twelfth of a second; less than the time it took a dispatcher to read the code. The problem was, most codes happened unnecessarily. The safety-priming occurred anytime a vehicle was traveling beyond a certain speed and within a certain distance of other vehicles. Things as simple as a vehicle dropping too much speed to change lanes in front of a rig might cause a code-12. Every dispatcher knew that, and Gail herself had often reported “Code-12 acknowledged, disregard.”

She waited for the repeat of the phrase, or at least part of it, but there was nothing. The next code flashed. She heard it as she had the last. “Ferrero, come in. Code 12 and 16, acknowledge.”

Sixteen was worse, especially after a twelve. Even Gail would’ve been on alert if dispatching. That Brianne’s own, monotonous voice seemed to quiver with concern said she recognized its problematic nature too. Code-16 was a hard application of breaks. The next three codes dinged at-once over the headphones. Three, separate tones sounded. Codes 17, 22, and 6, were confirmations of 16, if nothing else.

The dash-cam showed little change, save a marked decrease in speed. 17 and 22 alone wouldn’t show anything, let alone with a six. Respectively they were the engagement of the ABS systems, exhaust brake, and the prime of the airbag. Anytime a 16 or 17 showed up, it was sure a 6 was near by. Still, there was no way to see anything in the cab behind the camera to confirm driver-awareness.

Something crept sideways into Brianne’s voice as she attempted to hail Ferrero again, and received only silence in reply. More alerts began to ding in her headset, followed by numbers. The cam footage synced as Gail mentally followed the protocols. The dash-cam scenery slowed. The trailer cam showed cars slamming on their brakes, swerving at either side of the truck. One car zoomed past in the fifth-wheel’s peripheral.

All at once, the rig swerved left. The scenery shifted. More codes. A lone car speed away through the windshield. The scenery shifted right. More codes, more alerts. Vehicles slammed into one another in silent destruction. A power-steering code went up. The truck swerved again. A balance code. Brake codes. A veritable stream of safety alerts spooled across the log, mirrored by sounds in Brianne’s headset. Gail sat on-edge. The rig went left, right, left again. The camera jolted right. The truck was on its side. It slammed a guard-rail at an angle, sheered off a section of hood and engine. The steel rail wedged into place– a pry-bar jammed in the righ that drug along the highway. Engine parts rained across asphalt. Metal ground into showering sparks. Fire lit.

Codes and alerts were endless now. Alarms screamed beneath Brianne’s trembling calls. She’d been too frozen to check the cameras before Gail came over, but the footage was there. Gail’s heart was uncharacteristically in her throat. The flames were growing, spewing out smoke. The twisted guard-rail broke free, took the bulk of the engine with it. Debris blew backward with flaming plumes. Oil and gas-soaked steel soared past, sprayed the front-end’s remnants. Smoke and fire obscured everything. The trailer cam caught the last of the evasive cars, and less fortunate drivers, crashing or swerving away as sparks died with the trailer’s momentum. The syrupy stream in her headphones continued for a few moments of inaudible shock before Gail’s own voice piped up on the recording.

A few moments later, it was over. The fire was out. The smoke was gone. EMTs were rushing Ferrero away and fire-fighters were cutting into damaged vehicles to free their occupants. Gail suddenly felt the tension in her body. Her knuckles were white, gripping her chair’s armrests. Her body was poised forward, pulse racing: It could’ve been anyone– it could’ve been her. She swallowed hard at the thought, fished an old flask from a desk-drawer, and after a breath, took a long pull from it.

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