Carl’s house was a little place on the edge of Oakton and Masseville. It was once a nice, quaint place to live. Following his divorce, Carl’d let the place go. The yard was a jungle of knee-high thistle and rough grasses. Even its expertly-maintained past couldn’t downplay its abandoned look. The beat-up Chevy rolled up to the house and came to a stop. It’s occupants look to Gail.
She glanced back at Marla, then to Nora beside her, “Are we covered here?”
“Yes and no,” Nora admitted. “But we know he’s ready to run. We can’t risk losing him.”
Gail needed clarity. “How d’we know that?”
“He was in the garage earlier. Darian and I were combing engine parts. He would have known we were going to find the chip. He’s anticipating something. He’ll be ready to flee.”
Gail nodded. “Marla, go around back. Make sure he doesn’t sneak out. Let’s do it.”
The car’s doors opened, shut with intent. Marla sneaked for the far-side of the gravel driveway and disappeared. Gail and Nora swished through thigh-high grasses, toward the front of the house. The door opened. Carl’s figure hustled into the night, oblivious to their presence. Gail could just make out the bag slung over his shoulder. He angled for the driveway.
“Stop right there!” Nora shouted, holding her badge up. “OPD. Lower your belongings slowly and put your hands behind your head.”
A bright light flared on. Carl swiveled at them. The motion-activated flood-lights blinded the women. Gail’s sight returned: Carl’s bags were on the ground. His body leaned into a double-barrel shotgun.
“On your knees, both of you!” He shouted, finger poised. Nora didn’t carry a weapon. Her face said as much. Carl barked, clacked the double-hammers, “Do it!”
They knelt in the long grass. Its stalks stabbed their chests and necks. Gail shouted, “Put the gun down, Carl. You don’t want to do this.”
“Hell I don’t!” He sneered. “Twenty years of driving! Now they’re phasing us out. ‘N all you want’s to go down fighting. You’re a cunt, Gail. You always been a stubborn, hot-headed cunt. You don’t know shit about driving.”
“This isn’t about me, Carl.”
Nora added, “You’re looking at time. We have evidence. We’re building a case. Killing us doesn’t change that. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”
“The fuck would you know about it?” Carl blurted, turning the gun on Nora. “Your fancy-ass college education doesn’t know spit about bleeding or sweating for a living. How would you feel, huh? How’d you feel if all your life came crashing down? Then– then– you find out you’re being replaced by machines?”
“That’s not what’s happening, Carl,” Gail insisted. “I’m not selling the company.”
The shotgun trembled in his raging hands. He growled, “Don’t you get it, Gail? You can’t stop it. All you can do’s hope to hold out long enough. Hope to walk away saying you fought the good fight. And who takes the hit? You? No!” He spit at the ground in front of her. His tongue was acidic. Venomous spite misted the air, “No. It’s us that takes the hit. All that time between those offers. Waiting. Hoping. Thinking you’ll find a way to hold on. Keep the world from changing. And all the time those offers keep getting smaller. The noose gets a little tighter. The company’s a little less profitable. Whose gonna’ lose their paycheck, their benefits, when the garage goes under? When the machines take over? It won’t be the owners, it’ll be the drivers. The Union boys. ME!”
“Is that why you killed Buddy, Carl? Why you tried to kill me?” Gail asked. A shadow flitted behind him. Gail caught it, did her best to keep him distracted. “You made a deal with M-T, didn’t you? Plant the chips, they write you a check. That’s it, isn’t it? How much, Carl? How much did they give you to murder your friends? Did they promise you’d get away with it, too? Answer me!”
“You think you’re my friend, Gail?” He threw his head back with a laugh. “The only person you’re friends with is yourself. And only because you don’t realize how god-damned unbearable you are.” He re-shouldered the shotgun, “I’ll be doin’ the world a favor takin’ you out.”
His finger touched the trigger. A heavy rock slammed down against his head. He crumpled like a rag doll, unconscious. Marla tossed the rock aside, grabbed up the shotgun.
“Son of a bitch!” She spit with adrenaline.
Nora hurried over to slap hand-cuffs on Carl. Gail took the shotgun from her, “Nice job. Took long enough though.”
She heaved a sigh to calm herself, “I needed to hear him say it. We know the truth now.”
“I need to call this in,” Nora said. “We’ll have to book him, but the charges will stick ‘til we get the rest of the evidence. He’ll never see daylight again.”
Gail helped her to lift and carry Carl to the car. Marla rushed over, opened a door. They stuffed him inside, dispersed for different doors. They climbed in to head for the police station. Nora dialed her cell-phone.
The beater rocketed along, fueled as much by Gail’s fury as the need to exact revenge. Nora’s voice was a steady stream flowing into a phone to reveal everything. Having a gun pointed at her fueled her as much as it had Gail. Nora’s usually silken voice was grating from fury. She relayed everything, ending with a request to have a cell ready.
Gail wasn’t sure what would happen to Carl, but the Union wasn’t about to get near his defense. If the evidence held up, he’d be defended by lawyers bought with M-T’s money. Then again, if they wanted deniability, they might throw him to the wolves just for getting caught red-handed and pants-down.
Gail’s fury was only invigorated as they passed one of M-T’s A-I rigs. That the bastards had the gall to run them past her now was the ultimate slight. Auto-guided by software or not, it made her jaw clench. She grit her teeth, accelerated along the empty, rural road. Flashing hazards glowed ahead. Yellow emergency lights splayed across the roads and trees. A jack-knifed rig blocked both lanes just past an intersection and stop-sign. Gail rolled to a stop, hesitated. Nora eyed her carefully.
“Gail? Just go around.”
She glanced back at Marla and Carl; the latter was still unconscious, slumped against the left window. Marla was poised forward, squinting at the rig.
“One of yours?” Nora asked.
Gail was focused on the tow-rig in the oncoming lane. It was a new model Kenworth, based around the T680 body style. Its massive tow crane was still flat across its rear-end. Its lights spun with alternating splatters on the rig-body behind it– a similar T680 type. Her gut wrenched into a knot.
She choked out words, “Oh shit.”
Nora’s heart leapt into her throat, “What?”
Marla craned her neck around the side of the seat. Her eyes widened. Nora caught it, about to repeat herself. She saw it too: no driver. None for the tow-truck. None for the rig itself. The road was completely deserted. Nora squinted harder. Little bars were spaced along the trucks at bumper-level. More were doubled there and near the roof of the trailer. A-I sensors. Nora looked to Gail, her eyes focused on the rear-view mirror. Blinding headlights charged at them. A flash in the side-mirror caught the others’ attention.
Shouts went through the car to run or drive. Gail stared. Waited. It was obvious now. Far from being caught off-guard, Gail was going to use it to her advantage. Screaming apexed in her ears, rebounded off windows and doors. The face of the A-I rig sharpened as it bore down. Its lights blinded Nora and Marla, left imprints of high-beams and sensor strips.
Gail breathed. “Checkmate.”
Her foot hit the gas. The Chevy lurched, spun left through the intersection. It took a few yards of road before its brakes clamped down in a skidding stop. Exhaust and air brakes screamed and growled through the night. Gail wrenched around. The A-I rig was attempting the turn. It could never make it at such a speed. It jack-knifed, slid in an L toward the intersection.
Its software tried to compensate, lost equilibrium. It teetered at the intersection, overturned, rolled. A gut-splitting gnarl of metal and shattered glass echoed from the intersection. The charging rig rolled, smashed the other two at top speed. The tow-rig was demolished, along with the trailer of the second M-T rig. The twisted steel flipped and crashed. It ricocheted along the rural road, rebounded off trees and aged asphalt.
The trio stared at the wreck, frozen.
Then, the jack-knifed rig winked. It’s lights flickered on and off. Gail swallowed, dropped her boot on the gas. The M-T rig lurched to life, freed from its offending trailer. It revved after them like a locomotive rising to full-power. Gail’s beater struggled for higher gears. Her arms locked in front of her, knuckles white on the wheel.
“Jesus, Gail. Faster!” Marla cried.
Nora was kneeling in her seat, looking back dumbfounded. The rig’s high-beams lit, forced her back around. Her hands trembled to affix her seat-belt. “W-what do we do?”
“Get the fuck out of here!” Gail shouted, one eye on the rear-view.
She threw the car around a corner, lost traction on two wheels. The other two squealed to compensate. Old suspension groaned with a wheezing engine that sprinted for top speed. Air brakes sounded as the A-I rig rounded the corner nearby, fought to regain its pursuit.
“Shit,” Gail breathed.
She repeated the word over and over. Needles stabbed her foot from her pressure on the accelerator. They shot up her leg, into her torso, settled in her chest. It heaved with panting terror. However it was happening, the A-I was pursuing them. There was no escape.
Headlights flashed in the distance ahead. Another M-T rig manifested from the darkness. It barreled from beneath a canopied intersection, weaved into Gail’s lane. She was dimly aware of instructions and frightful cries. Her mind was hammer-down, fighting to slalom its way past certain death. Coupled with a complete loss as to escape, she almost froze.
The rigs charged them from both sides. One nudged the Chevy’s rear. It fishtailed with a burst of speed. The rig dropped back to compensate. It roared back up to her bumper. The one ahead stared them down, grew larger. It readied to sandwich them into the other. Gail tasted diesel fuel and blood on the air. The rigs would stop at nothing to end them. Whatever was controlling them wouldn’t rest until the witnesses to M-T’s crime were lost.
She felt the rumble of engines, sensed them ready to sandwich her. At the last possible second, she jerked the wheel left. The rear-right fender clipped a rig’s fairing. Marla and Nora screamed. Gail tensed up. The Chevy three-sixtied into the left lane. Wheels spun along grass at the top of a ditch. Grass and mud splattered the air. The two rigs collided head-on.
In the split second before steel was engulfed in flame, she saw the thwack of antennas. Heat of ignited fuel and oil tainted the car’s innards. Gail fought to regain control. Their spin arced toward the trailer of the wrecked rig. It missed by a hair’s breadth, came to a stop on the far-side of the road.
“GPS,” she said quickly. “They’re tracking us. Shut your phones off.”
“Gail!” Marla shouted, fumbling for her pocket.
More headlights were closing from three sides. The sat at the edge of an intersection. Gail’s eyes widened. She slammed on the gas. The Chevy’s tires spun, tearing away dirt and sprinting through and away.
“Shut them off! Now!” Gail ordered, fishing out her cell-phone.
The headlights closed, merged into a line of three-wide rigs. They expertly avoided spilling into ditches. She thumbed her phone’s off-switch, watched the wall of steel and fuel. It gained ground, closed. She expected to see it drop away. Instead, it continued gaining. Her stomach and heart were in her throat.
“It’s not working!” Marla squealed.
Nora craned to watch the rigs. “A-anymore id-deas?”
It didn’t make sense. There was no other way to track them except…
“Carl!” she said suddenly. “It isn’t about us.” Marla was already fishing through his pockets. “They want Carl dead. M-T does. They’re sending the rigs after him. We’re caught in the middle. They don’t want him telling anyone.”
“Shit,” Marla said, fumbling to pry apart the phone’s case. “It’s locked I can’t–”
The steel wall slammed their rear-end. The phone fell, slid under Nora’s seat. A din of various cries and demands rose. Marla ducked down, clawed for the phone. Her fingers caught its edge. The wall rammed them again: the phone jerked away.
Metal crunched. The Chevy lurched again. The phone slid further under the seat. Marla’s hands struggled with her seat-belt. It gave way. Another ram threw her into the seat-back.
“Marla!?” Gail said, terrified. “Are you-”
“I got it!” She slammed it against the door to crack open the case, tore the back off the phone. She pried out the battery. “Shit, they’re still–”
“The sensors,” Nora cut in. “Break line-of-sight.”
Gail rubber-necked the area; they were in rural Masseville. The place was mostly forests and open fields. She spied a break in the trees. Dense wood and canopy gave way for a hundred yards to a wire-fenced field. It was worth a shot.
The Chevy’s engine topped out, screaming. The right rig lurched, slammed the bumpers together. The center rig made an attempt to get alongside her. She wouldn’t let it. The car swerved back and forth, kept the wall in check. Their software compensated. With a final jerk of the wheel, the Chevy ramped off the road, caught air. A back wheel tore down the wire fence, drug it along behind them. The car plowed through the empty field into the obscurity of the trees.
One of the rigs tried to follow. It caught air. Its gravity shifted. The trailer went up, over. The fifth-wheel was wrenched clean off. The rig landed wheels-up. The trailer splayed across what was left of the open ground. All at once, the remaining rigs skidded to a screaming stop, their lights and engines shut down. Gail’s terror finally bled in. She drove on, dragging the fence.
Her heart managed to slow itself enough for logic to take over again. They needed to stop, get the fence free, get Carl to the police. She slowed to a stop and the trio of women staggered out on rubber legs, awestruck by fires that glowed randomly in the distance. Marla vomited. Nora tended to her.
Gail stared, stilling her trembling limbs. So much destruction. All for money, power.
“M-T’s got a lot to answer for,” Nora said finally, returning to her side.
Gail nodded, eased into motion. Together, she and Nora pulled the bit of stuck fence from the bumper, then took a moment to breathe. Whatever would come of it, one thing was certain; M-T’s so-called accident-free rigs could now be linked to this. Only time would tell if the charges stuck.
After seeing Carl to the local lock-up, Nora and Marla returned to the garage while Gail gave a statement to a Detective. Though it had yet to be proven, rumors of foul-play against M-T soon came to light. They spread like wild-fire through the net and media journals that saw them as a great way to catch views and strengthen readership. The knife of publicity cut both ways.
Almost immediately after returning to the garage, Darian confirmed to Gail a connection to M-T. The chips he and Nora had removed had been hacked, and after a preliminary examination, contained identical code written for use in A-I rigs– the same code both patented and owned by M-T. Subsequent investigation confirmed the source: the chips were manufactured and distributed by the same subsidiary, and were identical, to those used in the damaged rigs found on the roads.
The media ate up the stories. M-T’s spin-doctors declined all comment. Their silence proved their already obvious guilt. The Federal Grand Jury scheduled to meet. Also scheduled, for expert and witness testimonies, were Gail, Darian, Marla, and Nora. They would do their best to damn M-T. Carl too: He’d been persuaded to testify once it was clear M-T would not rescue him.
Unfortunately, none of those facts changed what Gail recognized as true: Bud Ferrero’s death was an omen of things to come– for Lone-Wolfe, for the industry. She was standing over Bud’s freshly-marked grave, Marla beside her, when the epiphany hit. The funeral had months before, and the media-circus had long forgotten him. It still raged elsewhere, but the reason for the initial tent-pitching was no more a thought than Bud himself. Nothing had been concluded. Nothing would. That was the point of the circus. It merely went on.
Likewise, progress would not stop. Gail knew it now. She stood, hands in her jean jacket, feeling more sentimental than ever in her life– either from depression, or Marla’s daughter-like presence.
“Carl was right about one thing…”
She stared at Bud’s epitaph: “He delivered love to our hearts.”
Marla sniffled, eyes teary. “What do you mean?”
For once, Gail didn’t mind the tears. She’d have added to them if it weren’t for the stiff upper-lip she’d cultivated. She knelt before the head-stone, “We can’t change the future. We can’t avoid it. Everything has its time. Its season.”
Marla’s face showed hints of confusion, sorrow. “I don’t understand.”
Gail winced, “One day the drivers will be gone. The culture with them. All of it will just be another footnote to history, like milkmen and carrier-pigeons. The most we can do’s try to make up for it ‘til then. When it happens, we’ll do our best to avoid hardship.”
Marla was quiet, thinking about it. Gail sensed it, kept her mind on the same frequency. It was an eternal story of society, the making way for the new by discarding the old. Lamp-lighters or milkmen, cobblers or drivers, it didn’t matter. Some things faded. Where the people went, she wasn’t sure, but she had a feeling she’d find out soon.
She pulled her hand from her pocket, set a small, toy-rig at the base of Bud’s grave. The T680 was the same color as Bud’s. For the first time since the accident, Gail’s stiff-lip trembled. A tear formed in her eye, slipped down her cheek. She rose solemnly with Marla at her side, and turned away.