Gail waited a few hours to mull over her conversation with Nora. She’d come away from it feeling a little less like the whole world was against her. That Nora acknowledged even the possibility of Lone-Wolfe’s innocence kept her spirits up. Enough to wait out the morning in piled-up paper work, anyhow. By dawn, Darian had appeared in the shop, more pressed and dressed than usual. Gail prepped to run her pre-haul check and get on the road. She was anxious to drive. The last run may have been hellish, prescient in its way, but this could be the reprieve she’d sought. She was no longer waiting for the tidal wave to crash down. Instead, she was doing her best to eye the damage, clean up. She even had official help to do so.
She loaded up the W900, fired the engine. It wasn’t long before she was across town, trailer hooked up, and headed for the highway to Indiana. She kept her wits about her, but managed to relax for the first time in days. Oakton Shipping had taken an order for a steel haul to USX, to be delivered at US Steel’s Gary Works. It was a comparably short jaunt to most steel hauls. Usually, she’d pick up steel from USX or Mittal, haul it to anywhere from the East or West coasts to be used in Industrial applications. Easy treks from Oakton’s importing warehouse to the mills, were few, and further between. This time around, it was coils on a flat-bed chained “shotgun style” and secured with wooden 4x4s.
Ferrero’d always insisted on the shotgun style hauling coils. He’d become somewhat notorious for it between Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois’ shippers. It was yet another reminder that his accident was out of character. He’d even take simple coil-hauls seriously. If hauled “Suicide” style, one slip of a chain could easily kill a driver by crushing their cab. Worse, it might murder the poor saps riding behind them. Gail had always been glad for Ferrero’s cautious nature. She was even more glad now that she’d been forced to fill in for Felicia.
In all the years she’d been driving, Gail’d avoided accidents. It was mostly luck. Most drivers had at one under their belt, usually from bumper-stickers– people riding a rig’s ass too and ending up eating trailer or bob-tail axles. Most of the time, they didn’t walk away unscathed. Other times, they didn’t walk away at all. It never ceased to amaze Gail the amount of CB traffic reporting accidents or near-hits.
It helped to keep off the CB, or out of open channels, anyway. She’d submerged herself in the “culture” enough years that it no longer felt necessary. Most of the new-age drivers didn’t use handles, or even for that matter C-Bs. Otherwise, there was no-one to talk to; each day more rigs were autonomous, computer driven. That was M-T’s contribution to the world. That was what they wanted for everyone. Every once in a while Gail’d see the driver-less cabs hauling refrigerated box-trailers or tarp-cover dump-trailers. It always forced a chill along her spine.
She caught site of one of the A-I rigs just past the Ohio-Indiana border. It looked like any other rig at first-glance. On longer inspection, there was a glaring lack of humanity to its driving. It didn’t need to constantly and minutely correct its steering. Instead, it was always “within tolerance.” At that, it never changed speed. The only other indications of anything out of the ordinary were evenly-spaced sensors along its exterior. A normal person might’ve missed them, but Gail’s hyper-alert experience with rigs homed in on them instantly.
Ice once more clambered along her spine; this was the future. Mindless algorithms. Sensors. No hearts pumping blood, no brains thinking. Their routes were cold, calculated, driven by programmers accountable for mistakes or success. People were the weak-link. She couldn’t help but see a future filled with these things. People were too unpredictable. They kinked the proverbial hose’s pristine flow necessary for their function.
For someone as admittedly as cold as Gail, she’d half-expected to find some measure of companionship in the idea. Instead, she felt her first moment of sentiment. With it, came the unassailable gut-sickness that it was merely from her place as a human in a human’s world. That world was fading fast. The rigs were just one symptom, one sign, of a deeper truth; she– and everyone else—were becoming humans in a computing world. Robots, drones, algorithms, A-I, sensors replaced security, cameras, drivers, the list was endless.
Her gut-sickness only increased as the Kenworth pulled alongside the A-I rig. Its M-T Inc logo glared at her from its door: Mechanized Transports. This was their fault. They’d flooded the roads with A-I rigs. Flooded the Unions with work-less drivers. They’d given shipping corporations incentives to cut out drivers– people— and switch to machines. That left the smaller companies hanging by threads, incapable of competing with their profit/cost ratios.
Then, the bastards had the gall to try to by her out. It forced her to become even more of an ice-queen bitch than she’d been. When she declined, they’d turned public opinion against her. Like others, she was just trying to make ends meet. M-T and the like managed to smear them, and kill off an American tradition in the process. But they weren’t content with that. When Gail continued to refuse, they murdered one of her drivers. She wasn’t sure how yet, but between Darian and Nora’s investigations, she would learn how. In time, she’d set fire to M-T, that prick Wembley, and their reputation. Then, she’d sit back and watch them burn to the ground.
She sighed. The road emptied of the few cars around her. They dispersed along merges or ramps. She’d left the A-I rig far behind her, hammered-down just to keep her mind elsewhere. She eased off the throttle, let the speedometer sink back toward the speed-limit. The last thing she needed now was a speeding ticket.
Judging by the yard-sticks, she wasn’t far into Indiana. Roughly two-thirds of the trip still remained. If she was lucky, the haul would only take a few more hours. She might still make it in and out of Gary without excess headaches. She wasn’t holding her breath. The place was usually a nuthouse of rig-jockeys fighting for what few hauls weren’t already automated. She was already certain she’d be driving back load-less, wasting fuel and time, but it couldn’t be helped. Ferrero would’ve stayed overnight, waited for another load to be arranged before returning. Gail didn’t have that luxury. Too much needed to be done with the media-circus. Plus, she needed to ready to attend Buddy’s funeral at the drop of a hat.
The road was clear. The sun had just begun shining alongside the highway. Dew still clung to reflectors and guard-rails. Infinite droplets gleamed in sheets along grassy plains that buffering woods and civilization from asphalt. The tranquil serenity Gail had always sought during her hauls returned just in time for the gut-sickness to ramp up. Whether one caused the other, she wasn’t sure.
The brake pedal twitched near her foot. She had enough time to say “What the hell.” Thacker was squawking over her CB. Her hand lifted for it. The rig jerked left. Her stomach dropped. Her pulse started into a sprint. Her hand locked back on the wheel. The rig jerked right. The wheel went with against her will. She recalled Ferrero’s accident, anticipated the next swerve. The rig went left again. Her hands worked. Exhaust and air brakes screamed and chattered, piercing the silent dawn. The trailer brake locked up. The rig was doing its best to come to a stop. It screamed in defiance of the forces acting on it. Technology and physics tugged at it.
The wheel jerked right again. The rig readied to tip. The brakes squealed, chattered, chirped. It couldn’t anymore. Gail’d bled enough speed. The coils weighed too much. Thacker’s voice was frantic. Gail wasn’t listening. She was too focused. She threw on her hazards, blared her air-horn. The rig tried to swerve again, still couldn’t. Gail wrenched the wheel right as it fought for the left. It threw her onto the shoulder. Angry hornets growled beneath the tires from the shoulder’s rumble-strips.
The screams, squeals, and growls waned with the last of the rig’s speed. When it finally came to a complete stop, a quarter mile of smoke trailed behind Gail. A few cars zoomed past in the fast lane. One blared its horn. Somewhere in the back of Gail’s mind, she wanted to flip the bird. The rest of her was too focused on keeping her heart from seizing. She sat, body locked with both feet on the brake and Thacker’s voice badgering her. She breathed, put the rig in neutral, and killed the engine– whatever happened couldn’t continue if the truck was dead.
“Thacker, I read you. Confirm codes–” She rattled off a strings numbers. “I’m pulled over on I-74 just outside Shelbyville. I’ve got a serious problem. Find Darian. Put him on the closed-channel.”
“10-4, Gail. Glad to hear you’re in one piece,” he wheezed, as near to cardiac arrest as Gail felt.
She downed a half-bottle of water before Darian sounded on-air of their private CB channel, “Go ahead, Boss.”
She leaned out the driver’s window, eyeing her mile-long skid-marks, “I’m just outside Shelbyville. My rig’s shot. I need a pick up and exchange with one from the garage.”
He sensed she was avoiding saying too much, “10-4, Boss. Dispatch has your GPS. I’ll tow another rig out myself, prep the other back for inspection.”
His shortness told Gail exactly what she hoped to hear; he’d sensed her subtext and knew to haul the rig to examined it against Bud’s. Hopefully, she wouldn’t total another rig hauling the coils, but the risk had to be taken. At the very least, if something else happened, she’d be ready now.
“Copy, dispatch. I’m issuing operations cease as of today. Have the other drivers finish their hauls and report back. Until we inspect the fleet, I want the rigs under lock and key. And keep Roselle with you. Tell her to use her badge.”
“Dispatch copies,” Darian said a moment later. “ETA two-hours to meet. Sit-tight.”
Gail threw her head back. It wasn’t often she stared death in the face. That she’d lived through it was almost a stroke of pure luck. The rig had been too heavy. Her memory too attuned to the Ferrero’s dash-cam. She’d recognized the vehicle’s attempts to execute the same maneuvers. However it had been done before, it had obviously been duplicated here.
Darian had flown at top-speed in one of the company flat-bed’s, arrived a half-hour ahead of schedule. Ben Schrier’s Freightliner Cascadia occupied the flat-bed, had just been in for minor repairs. Schrier was currently on vacation with his wife and son somewhere in Florida. Gail helped the pair to lower it off the flat-bed, then carefully maneuvered through the growing traffic to set up for the trailer-hookup. Darian pulled in front of the W900, used the flat-bed’s tow-winch to drag it up the bed and disengage the fifth-wheel. They weren’t about to take chances turning the engine back on.
Gail fitted the Cascadia’s fifth-wheel to the trailer, secured it, then dragged the trailer the rest of the way onto the shoulder. She climbed down and out, engine idling, and met up with Darian and Nora at the rear of the flat-bed. Its hazards flashed, attracting a gawkers in the fast lane. Darian was testing the last of the chains as Gail approached.
“Don’t report it yet.”
Nora’s jaw clenched slightly, “I’m afraid I have to. It’s my job.”
“Not yet,” Gail said firmly. “Confidentiality. Use it. We have to ensure no-one outside the company knows this rig’s compromised. If someone finds out, it could corrupt your investigation.” Nora’s face stiffened at questionable logic. “I know that rig is safe. I’ve driven it for fifteen years. But that’s not everything.”
Nora was uncertain, but resigned to hear Gail out, “How do you mean?”
Darian appeared. “Everything’s green. Ready when you are.”
Gail stayed him with a hand, “Ferrero.”
“You nearly lost control?” Nora asked pointedly.
“I did lose control, Nora,” Gail said carefully. Darian was leaning in now, focused over the sounds of traffic. “The swerving was a point-for-point match. The only difference was that I was heavier, recognized it, and compensated before it completely took over.”
“It? You mean the rig ?” Darian asked skeptically.
“Or whatever’s compromised it.”
Nora shook her head, “This is asinine, Gail. You’re jumping at shadows. You need–”
Gail cut her off, “Someone has done this! They murdered Ferrero. Now they’ve tried to take me out.” Darian and Nora exchanged a disquieted look. Gail sighed frustration. “Just take the rig back. Tear it down. Find the problem. I’m going to Gary. You two hail me on the CB if you find anything. Keep it quiet otherwise.”
Darian shrugged, “We’ll do what we can.”
Nora agreed. “I’ll hold off on anything formal for now.”
“Thank you,” Gail said with genuine gratitude.
The trio dispersed. Gail started out again for Gary again. Whatever the hell had happened, her body was still stuck in it. Mentally, she’d deduced that the danger had passed, but her stomach was knotted and her heart still in her throat. Most of all, she was angry; angry that Nora had doubted her, that Ferrero had been killed, that she could’ve easily been next. However it had been done, she felt M-T’s hand in it through her knotted gut. Whatever hand that was, Ferrero’s blood was on it. Bud may not have even been the first? Who knew how many they’d killed, or could.
Gail couldn’t be sure, but if she had her way, this attempt would be the last. All she had to do was wait for the evidence, then take her opportunity when it came. M-T would burn for this.