At seventy miles per hour, the interstate hums a particular tone, a windy somnolent F above middle C. The lamps fly past, regularly spaced, short bursts of light, hissing SSSS in Morse code. The new LED bulbs are eerier, and more abrupt, than the hazy orange sodium lamps they’ve replaced. On long smooth straightaways, the judder of cargo on the hitch is reduced to a gentle vibration. Clarence is lulled by these things, his pouched eyelids beginning to droop, chin descending toward chest with the slow slope of an unwilling assent.
He starts, hands clutching the wheel of his rig with long-honed reflex to wake before it’s too late, heart jolting, before he remembers that he’s not in control of it anyway. Clarence MacDonogh, long haul trucker of forty two years, is overseeing the pilot voyage of the Transmidwestern route for automated trucks, an observer and stopgap in case of failure.
Ensconced in the cab of the head vehicle, it’s all too easy to forget that he’s not just piloting his Bessie down midnight highways as he did for so long. Easy to forget the platooned network of smart trucks that trail behind him like so many enormous metal ducklings, borne in his slipstream, easy to forget all of the vacant cabs. It’s creepy to imagine this cavalcade of empty cabs, darkened seats occupied only by ghosts and wifi, so he tries not to think about it too much.
It feels both embarrassing and faintly traitorous to pilot his robot herd into a traditional truck stop, still teeming with regular trucks driven by men and the odd (and he does mean odd) woman. His very presence is a jab at their planned obsolescence, his voice over the CB radio supplanted by a smooth AI that doesn’t recognize any of the slang. Maybe that could be his next gig, training ol’ Semitruck Siri in the syntax of meat wagons and lot lizards, mama bears and Motor City. But he supposes that the new trucks have no real need for camaraderie or warnings of speed traps, locked into lawful programming and no loneliness. It’s plain weird, resting robots like they were horses at a post inn, but he needs to take a shit and get some hot coffee. It wouldn’t be a disaster if he fell asleep at the wheel of an automated truck, but after all this time, Clarence has standards.
Creakily descending into harsh blue lightpools, he’s treated to some hard glares from the other truckers. One man spits on the asphalt, another abandons his cabside exercise routine to crack menacing knuckles. Clarence nods to them.
“Look here, it’s one a’ them trainbangs,” the spitter calls dismissively. “And the little bitch on the receiving end.”
“It’s a paycheck, gentlemen,” Clarence shuffles his feet, feeling in his pocket for keys to wedge in between fisted fingers before remembering all the new automated models operate by plastic fob. “Not an endorsement.” There is grim muttering but he’s allowed to pass unmolested to the building.
Bowels emptied, coffee creamed, snacks re-upped, Clarence creeps back to his cab. He hates feeling like the enemy, but he’d been given the choice: supervise the robots or you’re out, and Alma, his wife of thirty nine years, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He needed the insurance. Coffee scalds his left hand as he grips the flimsy cup too hard, and he hisses, licks rapidly cooling dribbles from his wrist before it can moisten his shirtcuff. He’s almost to his cab, plastic bag handles twirling and unfurling soothingly in his right hand, when the first blow lands.
He swings the bag up reflexive but Little Debbie cakes and a plastic sleeve of roasted cashews are no match against a tire iron. Blunt boots meet ribs and kidneys with bass drum percussion. In only moments, it’s over, and Clarence blunders bloody, blind for the fob, fumbling for panic button. Fingers make contact and the trucks come to life, headlights flaring. He’s pushed the restart button instead. In a neat, technically mannered row, the automated trucks trundle back to the highway, blindly following the lead truck, the only one with the cab gently lit by domelamp, illuminating the empty seat that until just recently held Clarence MacDonogh, now lying on the asphalt with blood rapidly cooling in his hair, staring up at the hard blue light of the LEDs.