The monster rig whines up to walking pace without further help from me; multiple gear changes clunk precisely in its guts. I’m immediately bored as my role is reduced to overseer, approving a checklist of processes that scroll up my HUD visor.
The software is similar to the on-line levelling games we’re encouraged to play. There are no critical decisions to make so I think this is more of a ‘dead man switch’ to ensure the driver is paying attention. Tick the boxes, fill the progress bars, and build reward points to exchange for drug injections.
Hmm. Free drugs.
Suddenly I am interested.
I’m getting quite good at clicking the vigilance button before it goes orange. The reward of an adrenaline shot is almost mine, only three more points... the glare of that global screensaver, ‘A Better World’ interrupts me. A communication request, forces through the ‘do not disturbs’ I’ve plastered onto every screen. I resent the intrusion, although I bite my tongue as our security agent’s face appears. A reminder of who is truly in control of my life, at the moment. Far from being the master here I’m still just the rat in their cage.
“Lucker! Watch the auxiliary power supply. Go to manual and ram your way out if you need to. Out!”
Ramming government property sounds like fun. Except I effectively have zero visibility through the bullet-proofed windscreen. It is a deep green slit, absolutely useless for vision.
“I can’t see shit!”
I’ve complained to myself but the artificial intelligence is very good at interpreting truck driver vernacular. A drop-down menu of cameras mounted around the rig and trailer rolls down the visor screen. I cycle through them and marvel at the size of the load I’m dragging. It’s as wide as the truck and segmented into several long compartments, like a steel-jointed caterpillar. A warning about the auxiliary power supply to the trailers is flashing. They draw a heavy, priority load from the rig’s turbine. I watch the turbine ramp up to service whatever it is they are doing back there.
We are slowing. A rear entrance security hut holds up a long, crawling line of other freighters trying to get out. Waiting at the back of a line is unacceptable; evacuation has been stipulated.
Daring to take control, I delicately grasp the pistol-grip joystick. How hard can it be to drive this thing anyway? I ease the stick forward and a big, ‘override’ message reminds me I’m in manual control of several hundred tonnes, being motivated by several thousand horsepower. I tilt the stick sideways and the rig jerks out of line and roars down beside the waiting machines in the wrong lane.
Hoping our minder can adequately explain my actions later, I continue to gain speed. The fancy pendulum gates are no match for the Stannick’s reinforced front. We smash through without slowing. I travel a long way in the empty incoming lane until a break in the traffic island allows me to rejoin other vehicles fleeing towards the interstate motorway.
Experiencing the power of the rig, the turbines hearty wail, and the belching dark exhaust that plumes into the sky with each movement of the joystick is quite intoxicating. It’s an extremely touchy beast however, and I am under-experienced to say the least. Still accelerating I maintain the stipulated heading along our highlighted route towards a freeway slip-road.
I’ve neglected to take into account the traffic which slows before they merge onto the freeway. I see the bottle neck late and brake hard; an overreaction the rig does not appreciate. Lots of alarms and warning chimes sound off. I overcorrect and we drift off the road in a howling power-slide towards a ditch. Abandoning the stick I cling to my armrests.
“Uh oh. It’s all yours, truck. Auto-Drive!”
The overworked AI of the Auto-Drive scrambles all its resources to prevent disaster. A violent manoeuvre has the rig regaining the breakdown lane. It is a rough ride that ends with us careening onto the freeway.
For my part I belatedly toot the air-horn. Anyone in danger of being crushed has already taken their own evasive manoeuvres and several long, angry blasts of their horns are returned to me in our wake.
“What’s going on up there? Are we under attack?”
The questions come from the mussed up security man. He hangs tightly to a strap in the trailer and I’m certain he will hurt me when this journey is over. I let falsehoods overwrite my ineptitude.
“Ummm. Yes. Possibly. I seem to have outrun them. The Auto-Drive is not functioning correctly but don’t panic, I think I’ve sorted it now. Umm, out!”
I vow not to touch the controls again.
Almost an hour later I’ve eaten most of the food, found a hack to inject myself twice with adrenaline, and discovered a syth-metal music channel to drown the noise of mother’s aggravating snores. The only excitement is a vandal who throws a brick at us from an overpass. It bounces off the bonnet with a dull clang and I understand how the rig gets its battle scars. I track the running figure with the roof-mounted gun turret disinclined to fire on someone brave enough to fight back at the system. Moreover I feel guilt that I never have. To salve my conscience I eat the last snack bar.
Each kilometre we howl across puts us that much further from the industrial city I grew up in. Whatever we are heading towards remains frighteningly unknown. All I really do know is we are the only vehicle on this stretch of road, the rig is in the green, and I am being advised to exercise.
“Driver is advised to momentarily unseat or run circulatory massage program.”
Bloody ESL translators. I decide to get up for a stretch. It is strange leaving the thundering monstrosity to its own devices even if my influence is minimal while I’ve been seated. In fact the only interactions in the last ten minutes was to take a suck from a beverage tube and to check the screens that race with lines of various information; updated traffic reports, SPUD warnings, check-point locations. It also cycles through the Red, Orange and Green zones that spread and contract like amoeba across various areas.
There aren’t many Green zones left.
Our destination continues to flash an ‘unavailable to driver’ message but it’s not hard to deduce where we’ll end up if the route doesn’t deviate. We’re headed to the country’s Capital city, Guangming Xin Shijie.
The truck is rolling at 160 kilometres per hour when a huge bangs rocks the suspension. Godammit, I hope I don’t have to change a flat tyre. I scramble back to the seat and check the proximity alerts of several vehicles closing on us. A curtain of flame obscures several cameras.
We’re on fire!
“Ma, we’re on fire! Get up and help me, dammit!”
A dozen warning lights glow on the dash and we are slowing. Another detonation on the left hand side of the cab breaks the armoured glass. It slips from its frame and the once peaceful cab fills with smoke, noise and wind. The truck decelerates at a faster rate and yaws to one side. I grab the joystick for manual control and pump unresponsive brakes wondering what the hell is going on. Yet another explosion. Again on the left hand side. We dip heavily onto a rim that screeches across the road surface. The joystick’s movements translate flaccidly when the steering servos fail to respond.
“What have you done, you stupid boy!”
Yeah, that’s just great. Thanks for your help, mother.
The dash is a sea of red flashing lights and my HUD is a useless distraction. Something whacks me in the head. I swipe the headset off to silence its unreasonable demands, wishing I could do the same to the old woman who gripes at me.
Hot blood splashes from a forehead gouge. I wipe it from my eyes and stare in horror at the red palm. This is bad. Worse than the unhealed bang on the head I got yesterday.
The truck is coming to a shuddering, grinding stop, losing momentum fast. We have to get out. I shout incoherently while running across the sloping floor to the trapdoor exit. Mother follows down the ladder into an engine bay that is a smoking mess. I cough and shy away from the rapidly spinning flywheel. It has sheared through its cover and adds its unbalanced death throes to the noise of a turbine tearing itself apart. I shoulder past a bunch of hanging, spluttering wiring aside and feel the sparks burn my skin, slapping and swearing at the pain.
I pull up and mother crashes into my butt. The retracted stairs we’d used to enter are a crumpled mass, covered in melted, shredded tyre rubber.
There’s only one other way to try. The catwalk extends past the ladder to the sleeping quarters, towards the back of the engine compartment. Maybe there’s a maintenance hatch under the rear of the cab. I push my raving mother out of the way. She pounds at me uselessly with tiny, sharp fists, demanding that I save her. Hyperventilating, I’ve stopped screaming myself by the time I find the other hatch and lift it to reveal the road no more than a meter below us.
Mother is still hysterical. She deserves the slap in the face I intend dealing to her but she sees it coming and dodges. I lose my footing, falling through the hole into a pool of boiling coolant. I’m burning! I crawl beneath the truck’s three diffs and then freeze
There's someone prowling along side of the trailer; and by the look of the weapon's muzzle being trained in my direction I don't think they have come to rescue me.