This story is by Nicholas Killham and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘Ready? We’re live.’
‘Drive! Be yourself.’ The voice was Alexa, corporate communications. ‘The last truck driver.’
He glanced at the camera, forced most of a smile and let it fall, picturing himself awkward and artificial. The fear was quickly confirmed. A dashboard display played the stream, a few seconds delayed and painted with graphics. The distance ahead, bold in blue. In green his promised delivery window, ticking down. 900 miles to central warehousing. A little under 20 hours. Time, to eat, piss, maybe a nap. The last number, white and climbing, counted his audience. Seven hundred thousand. Softdrink and fast-food logos jabbed at the corner of his eye as he refocused on the road.
He switched on the radio.
‘Hiiii, me again’.
‘Just a quick hello to let you know we have limited music licensing rights on this livestream.’
‘Oh. What’s that mean?’
‘Totally cool, just instead of the radio we have an awesome pre-programmed selection of royalty-free tunes for you, if you just hit the next button there.’
He pressed and compressed piano played, not quite but almost close to Dylan. He twisted the volume and pushed the sound into the background.
‘Super thanks! I’ll leave you with your fans for now but we have an exciting surprise soon….Brian’s going to dial in!’
‘Brian the boss!’ she giggled. ‘Our CEO. Who made all of this happen!’
She was gone and the music merged with tarmac and mechanics in a familiar hum. He tried to look relaxed and alert and unaware of his image and the advertising and the, fuck, 1.3 million viewers.
750 miles. 18 hours.
The voice jerked him from a settled reverie. His display split and the face followed, skinny-suit jacket with a golden swell of hair, cresting just out of frame.
‘Brian Foster, CEO. Hi and hi to everyone watching, we’re so happy to have you with us on this historic journey. So, our last drive, how are we feeling?’
‘Ahhh we’re good, thanks,’ he replied, not knowing who the question was for. ‘Looking forward to a diner about half an hour from here.’
‘That’s great, that’s great, bet that’s a great little spot,’ said the executive. ‘Do me a favor though, push on a bit further. There’s a Headway Dot Com Super Stop off exit 44 with something special waiting.’
‘Great, great you’re gonna love it. Now listen, a huge Headway Dot Com thank you from me and the team. Our industry-defining pivot to automation has been a game-changer. Sure the shareholders are happy! But you bet we’ve passed on some savings to all you customers out there. And delivery delays are history! Speaking of, don’t sweat the deadline. Enjoy the ride. This is a celebration, of our history, of the workers that drove our success. That drove this country forward.’
‘Uh, thank you sir. I’ll make it.’
550 miles. 15 hours.
Exit 44 swept him up and over the highway. From the overpass he saw the swarm, hundreds spilling from the mini-mall and into the carpark, big-band and banner spanning the stage.
The bullhorn pierced through the trumpet and the crowd as he pulled in. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, media partners and Headway Dot Com VIP Club customers, our guest of honor!’
He stepped from his rig down into a quicksand of grins and outstretched hands. Back-slapping, head-patting, pads and pens in his face. He signed ten, twenty and strained to move forward, penned as more closed in. For an hour he shuffled, shook hands and signed, then another, with only agonizing progress. Hungry and defeated, he fell back again through the mass and pulled himself up and inside the vehicle.
Staring at his delayed and bleary reflection, he took a greying pillow and matching blanket from an overhead, reclined his seat and tried to sleep.
His audience sensed the shift and the din died respectfully, amplifiers and horns silenced. Yet the congregation didn’t dissipate. He watched his clock count while supporters swamped his attempt at rest. Each whispering in the night, a rising hurricane outside his cabin.
The panic of elusive sleep and relentless minutes overwhelmed him and at last he gave in, rising to the wheel. The crowd ignited and the party began anew. He inched forward as a parade path creaked open, and at length resumed the journey, pulling his horn for them.
450 miles. 8 hours.
‘We’re loving everything! Listen you’re about to go live with Jessica Moore, you know her. Absolutely THE hottest live-stream journalist right now, she’s dying to interview you.’
‘Hi! I’m Jessica Moore, you’re live on Midnight with Jessica Moore.’
‘The final run! How does it feel? You’re part of history. Leaving behind the car-crash era, traffic, toxic emissions. It must feel wonderful to see so much progress.’
‘Um, you know. The world moves forward. Hopefully things get better. I’m sure your business is changing, right?’
‘My business? Yes, I guess. I mean, news is more a bonus than a business. But, uh. Well thank you. We’re praying you make it!’
He followed painted lines into a trance as he ate at the miles. Stretches of farmland gave way in the dark to industrial rust, to retail neon. The night was warm and soft and he fell into it.
He felt his body lurch before a grinding shudder shook him awake, the landscape a cruel angle in his windscreen. He sucked a breath and brought the careening vehicle to a crunching halt.
His display came alive, viewer count pulsating higher. It didn’t seem to be him, in the frame. He sat, grasping the wheel, waiting for some voice in his earpiece. None came. A console light said the truck had scanned itself and found some debilitation. He pressed the service button.
Out on solid ground, slumped against a giant tyre, an hour dragged before the near silent repair vehicle pulled up, metal arms extended in embrace. In seconds the truck was half airborne and the machine operated, an octopus in surgery. In twenty minutes he was back on the road.
300 miles. 4 hours.
‘So there’s one more surprise. Someone very special.’
‘This is President Richard Adams. How are we doing?’
He looked to his display as a fresh image joined his own, bold tied and square jawed, at a desk stamped with the nation’s seal.
‘I, uh, hello sir’.
‘I know you’re busy there but allow me a moment to speak with you and with our fellow citizens.’
‘Thank you sir.’
‘No, thank you, for your service. An inspiration. The working man built this country and that’s who I’m here fighting for every day. That’s why we’re so proud of this booming economy. Surging stock markets, topping up pension pots. Our global leadership in technology. The countless jobs we’ve created in coding, AI, robotics.’
‘A brave new world, sir.’
‘Sounds like we can count on your vote, son. Godspeed!’
10 miles. 10 minutes.
The gas light lit and gloom pierced through the midday sun. The countdown timer turned red in turn, ticking ever faster. He guessed at how long he’d need to stop, refuel, roll in late. The central warehouse rose like a ship from the sea ahead. He shifted down a gear, eased off the pedal, shut off his air conditioning. He searched for an off-switch for the video display but found none. He rose in his seat and went on, forward.
The roadside began to fill with revellers. BBQ’s dotted the curbs, carts sold wine and beer. Coasting now on only the memory of gasoline, he saw his inescapable, electronic finish line, rising in the sky ahead and counting down in time with his dashboard.
The live-stream gleamed. Four million viewers and him too, running on fumes but resolute.
He opened his window, air-drag costing more momentum, cabin full with the roar of his welcome.
He sailed under the monstrous clock, foot clear of the pedal. In fits and turns, he backed into place and felt the auto-unloader attach, supporters in unison, ‘…three, two, one!’ He exhaled, slumped in his seat and turned the engine quiet.
Then he was moving, ebbed from his cabin for a final time and swept to waiting cameras. On a podium, he stood amid the throng, glad of the chance to stretch. Businessmen and politicians held court. At a point they asked him what next but his stilted deferral got lost in the fanfare and the music and the throbbing lights.
And then it was done, the crowd moved on. His vehicle towed, for some museum of industry, or some scrapheap. Smiles and glad-hands shepherded him again, into the vast and swaddling suite of an automated people-mover, pointed home. Upright on a jittering bed, he pressed his temple to the glass and slipped toward sleep, a river of shimmering, towering trucks speeding by him, clear to the horizon.