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fiction fridays 12 · "Priority Driver" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

 
Priority Driver by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 
 

Wednesday 23 August 2884

TrukStar Paradise #1132

Speedway 44, Bourbon, Missouri

Nordamericano, Earth (Sol III)

The eggs were a little bit too runny for his liking. And while the toast sopped it up, the kitchen had been every bit as heavy handed with the butter as they had with the strength of the coffee. But that was okay -- he’d stiff the counter girl a bit on the tip.

He hung on long enough watching the newsie to see if the Bosox had won last night. They hadn’t. Nothing new there either. Once again Norman had pitched 7-1/3 perfect innings only to get into trouble in the eighth. And that idiot Ballard had left Norman in one pitch too long... again.

He stood up, slurped the last of the bad coffee, and dropped a ten dollero note next to his plate to pay for the breakfast special. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out three one-dollero coins which he noisily clinked together. Then he remembered -- he was going to stiff the tip. So he only set one down and palmed the other two.

Stepping through the thick glass doors and into the already hot muggy summer morning, the constant whine of the superspeed highway seemed all around. There were about fifty other truckers parked here, mostly medium and short haulers. But Bert McCain was one of the top dogs -- he was a licensed Priority Point To Point hauler, working for Paul Revere Xpress -- “The Silver Ride Line.” Just ahead was his three-year-old sea foam green and silver Creighman XT-4000. The trailer shell was empty for now, but as he climbed up and hauled himself into the cab, he was ready to go and take care of that little detail.

***

What counted as “priority” in PPTP service was mainly whether someone wanted to pay the high tariffs -- it wasn’t necessarily whether the load was expensive or not. Sometimes it was just the difference between the shipper paying extra or having a load go worthless on him. But by and large the two main categories of cargo that McCain hauled were critical high tech goodies and high end perishables. Today it looked like high tech, as his master-of-the-road controller box on top of the dashboard blinked loudly to get his attention to exit the highway here, at yet another depressingly green and bland university-based industrial park. And yet another cute company name -- Ceramic Imaginationing -- that probably meant nothing, except to the bunch of eggheads on the faculty who got the low-numbered parking places.

And he was right about the university connection -- there were signs everywhere that kept mentioning some jerky operation called the UMR Technology Center that was funded by the University of Missouri-Rolla Engineering Development Initiative (UMREDI) -- which didn’t exactly impress McCain. He came from places with real universities, like Harvard and MIT, not that he had seen the insides of either. At least the access road for haulers was wide and smooth, and the electronic marker signs interlinked with his truck’s computer just fine, so he pulled into the transport bay marked by a rapidly flashing green light -- the universal sign that a shipper was impatient.

The foreman at the pickup site was like foremen everywhere -- he was an idiot. “It’s eight-seventeen, driver. You were supposed to be here at eight o’clock sharp!”

“Hold your horses -- there’s plenty of time in your contract,” Bert reassured the man as he climbed down from the cab.

“This is a War Priority load.”

“And I am a Priority driver.”

“Well -- you just better get this to the Chicago Spaceport in time to make that damned shuttle.”

“No sweat.”

He asked what it was that he was hauling and was given the usual technical malarkey, “A heavy weapons tube for the Unified Star Fleet cruiser Charleston,” which was apparently in orbit above Earth even as they spoke.

“Is it dangerous?”

“Yeah -- to an Enemy ship.” This amused the white lab coat who had come out to supervise the loading. No doubt one of the eggheads himself.

Bert showed his impatience. “I mean, is it a hazardous load?”

“How so?”

“You said it was a weapon. Can it go off?”

“No.” “Yes.”

The white lab coat wasn’t used to dealing with truck drivers. “I mean, theoretically, if the transport container were split open and...”

“No,” the foreman interrupted the white lab coat. “It’s safe for you to transport.”

“Sure glad you two got your stories straight. Now is it gonna break on me?”

“It’s like a big laser tube,” the white lab coat tried again. “Fragile, but well protected.”

Bert was worried about his own life -- they were worried about some hunk of tech. Typical eggheads. Still, the War had done wonders for the PPTP business. And Bert was good -- at least from Bert’s point of view. The paperwork was in order and the pallet was ready to go. Just some indistinct long, not really round, space shipping container all packed up and ready to go. He had the load snugged down in the trailer shell in twelve minutes flat, meaning that he would still be on time as he moved out at eight-thirty.

***

The contract had him delivering his load between twelve and twelve-thirty. That was four hours max -- plenty of time. He figured things based on all-out performance -- that’s what priority meant to Bert. The dashboard said he had 631 kilometers to go. At 200 kph, that was three hours and nine minutes, which would put him in at 11:39. Plenty of time on the contract, he kept telling himself as the truck whined out of UMR Technology Center and found the way to the ramp of the Forty-four.

His master-of-the-road controller box was a marvel of electronics, some road legal and some decidedly not. The “useful” functions were all printed on paper circuit cards which could be yanked out from their slots in the front and disposed of in any number of creative ways if one was pulled over -- though the manufacturer strenuously denied that such things were possible. Missouri was not one of the states where you could “spoof” or “adjust” the data from the roadside monitors, but he could receive real-time information on where he was likely to run into trouble.

For now he wound his rig up to 223 kph and worked to gain a little time advantage for his side. He’d need it, because weight restrictions would force him around one of the two St. Louis Bypasses on the way to the Chicago Spaceport.

With over a billion people in what was once the continental United States, all normal modes of transport had to be efficient. In a way, PPTP runs like his were throwbacks to an earlier age of consumption. The Priority price was both deterrent and profitable. Most of the traffic was trucks, with only a few personal vehicles in sight -- and those were mostly a pain because they couldn’t keep up on the speedways. The long chains of eight to twelve bubble cars were better, because they shared the duty between them and the idiots inside weren’t doing the driving -- the road did. At times they were almost pretty, like caterpillars swimming in a fast current. There would be more of the bubble chains as he closed in on St. Louis. Even so, a lot of those cars should’ve been kept home and their occupants punted over to the more efficient mass transports. That’d clear the roads for people like Bert McCain and he’d be a happier man if he could keep moving fast.

So he was surprised -- and annoyed -- to find as he rose up towards the crest of the next hill, that his speedometer was clicking rapidly downward and then locking in at 198 with the road clear ahead. A bright green “44” showed up on the panel of his master-of-the-road and as they came over the hill the number disappeared and the frequency of a blue laser speed-rangefinder replaced the previous number.

It was some time before he thought he spotted the highway’s setup. And then it seemed as though Missouri and southern Illinois must have been running some sort of training convention for highway patrols all morning and McCain’s average speed was off. But that wasn’t the only thing bugging him on this run.

Though the truck wasn’t his, the company assigned it solely to him and he took its care and feeding pretty personally. He also expected everything to work just the way he wanted it. So when he popped a music card of that pretty singer Tammy Faro into the sound system, he was annoyed by a repeated snapping sound off to his right. Making some adjustments, it was clear that something was wrong with the speaker or its wiring.

This was going to make for a long morning, Bert gritted his teeth.

***

McCain pulled off the road after St. Louis. He had a guy named Benny who did all his electronics customizations. Found him some ten years ago quite by accident, so as long as he was passing by this truck stop...

“Hey Bert! Long time no see,” Benny greeted him as he climbed down from his rig.

“That’s ’cause it costs me money every time I see you,” he replied -- not altogether joking.

“Funny. What’s shaking?”

“Funny you put it that way. Got a bad connection to a speaker or something.”

“You on a run?”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll get you in and out in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll go and get some coffee.”

“Sure thing, friend.”

Bert strolled over to the coffee shop and glanced at the newsie. Just his luck. They were doing Sports and that idiot Ballard was being interviewed -- why did his beloved Red Sox have to have such an obviously incompetent manager?

On the way back his comm link chirped in his ear and Bert found himself listening to the home office, who wanted to know why he wasn’t moving.

“Safety issue,” he lied. “Had a radio fault. You know you can’t go above 100 klicks without full readouts.”

That mollified them somewhat. “Send the telemetry dump once you get underway again, Bert. And make it snappy.”

“Sure thing,” he tried to sound cheerful. Then he sought out his electronics friend. Pulling out a twenty-five dollero bill, he begged a favor. “You gotta write this up as an intermittent comm fault or something.”

“Sure you got it.”

“And I need a TM dump.”

His friend stuffed the extra bill into a shirt pocket and smiled. “No problemo.”

Twenty-two minutes later he was pulling his rig back onto the Fifty-five, with the good clear voice of Tammy Faro singing You’re My Lover, Tonight in the background.

***

Now time was just beginning to get short for Bert McCain. He was still moving at 216 kph, but that damned countdown timer was nagging him with the minutes left on the contract. Crossing the Cook County line, he took a moment to start loading the final route map. Eight lanes of traffic both ways became twelve, then eighteen. He needed to move over to the left and began to look for an opening. The speedway would end and he’d have to do regular driving the rest of the way.

The right signals came on and his speed suddenly dropped -- the truck began to shift itself over to the right one lane. Instinctively he overrode the automatics and pulled it back straight. That’s when the display on the master-of-the-road came up all X’s and began to flash >>>>’s to the right.

Uh-oh, was all he had time to think as he realized that the truck had tried to help him, but he was blocked from taking that next ramp now -- the gap was closed. There was an accident ahead and the computer had tried to route him a detour. Why didn’t it tell him that first? Momentarily he thought of pulling all the way over and then backing up, but at 187 kph he’d take too long to stop.

And now traffic really was coming to a halt. Yellow flashing XXXX’s and quick footwork signaled the merger of man and machine as Bert smoothly brought his speed down. Around him bubble car chains, instead of breaking up and scattering here at the South Gateway, were merging into very long single-file lines which took the forced detour to clear the road ahead.

The road took over his truck now and it surged forward and took a gap between two bubble chains. It was agony watching the contract countdown clock and the slow progress. But it was forward progress he had to admit. And the road computer had things sorted out as well as it could, micromoving the trucks close enough to almost touch. The turbine shut off and he was in a creeper first gear on the electrics alone.

Two kilometers further and he could begin to see the wreckage of a bubble car left in the middle of the next-to-left lane. How the hell did a bubble car get trompled liked that? With the road driving his truck and a gap in the lane next to his, Bert touched the control to wind the window down and stared at the wreck and the fire fighters standing around it. He couldn’t tell if there was still a body in there. Meanwhile the summer’s heat poured over him.

Then another truck came up by his left and cut off his view, and anyway the dashboard began to beep at him, warning him that he’d be taking over soon. He glanced at his countdown timer and looked at the distance left. This was going to be close. He rolled the window back up and increased the A.C.

***

O’Hare International Spaceport. One of the largest spaceports in the country, it was one of three airports rated for ground-to-space launches in the Chicagoland area. A lot of heavy lifting industrial traffic moved through here and Bert McCain was no stranger to O’Hare. Lots of PPTP loads were destined to go to space and Bert was familiar with spaceports from his hometown Logan to San Diego and damned near every major city in between. Now it was just a matter of following the current map on the dashboard and taking the turns when the displays said to.

This all would have been so much easier if this shuttle had been in St. Louis, but he knew enough about the space transport business to know you couldn’t figure out why a particular shuttle came to any ground port. Besides, it kept him in business. But they didn’t need the delays he had run into today.

He made a right hand turn and found himself coming up to a military check point. Of course. The guy had mentioned something about this being for that War thing, which meant it was going real far out in deep space, and that meant Fleet. He slowed but the guards had already scanned him and were waving him through.

Now Bert was beginning to get antsy -- he always did as the driving ended and the unloading was about to begin. He could see the distance and time counters dropping in lockstep as he neared his designated drop point. The good news was that the distance counter was clearly going to win, which meant that the contract was safe. But just as he got there, he saw a rather angry baldheaded man storm out of the control shack towards him. As he set the brakes, he could see the gray, bulbous dart of a ground-to-space shuttle being towed away from the transfer point. Leaving? He just got here -- and on time.

“Where the hell have you been?” the red-faced bonehead yelled.

“Accident tied up traffic,” Bert began to climb down. “What the hell’s goin’ on? I got twelve minutes left on my contract.”

“No you don’t,” the other man spat. “It’d take seventeen minutes to pull and stow that cargo pack of yours -- and we don’t have that time.”

“But it isn’t 12:30!” McCain protested.

“12:30 is the launch time,” the man insisted.

“No -- we always have half-an-hour built into the schedule,” Bert insisted back.

“That’s a big negatory, mister. That shuttle has to launch at 12:30.”

“It’s five lousy minutes then. I was here within my contract.”

“You don’t have a clue about orbital mechanics, do you? To say nothing of the fact that the Charleston has already broken orbit.”

“That ain’t my job. I haul priority freight from point A to point B,” Bert said with some heat in his own voice. “That’s what Priority Point To Point means. That’s what I do -- that’s what you guys paid for.”

“We haven’t paid for anything yet.”

“And I ain’t unloaded yet,” he reminded them. “But you’re wastin’ my time now, which is still on the damned clock. Now let’s get this laser blaster or whatever the hell this thing is and get it off my truck and onto that swing crane and load it in that shuttle and get it into orbit. Or are you just tryin’ to scam the company out of its tariff? Hmm?”

Bert was thinking that was a strong possibility, especially with the evidence in front of him -- the shuttle pulling out before the end of the contract. But the baldheaded man didn’t fight back. In fact, he seemed sort of resigned.

“You just don’t get it,” the man shook his head. “The USFS Charleston has already left orbit. It’s on its way out to the stars right now. That shuttle has to chase after it. Launch from here and go right out after it.”

“Can they catch it?”

“Yes. Barely. If they launch after 12:30, though, they might not. Those guys on that shuttle are already risking their lives. And for nothing, it turned out.” The man shook his head in disgust.

“Jeezh, I’m sorry,” Bert sounded miserable. “But no one told me. They just put this contract through and...”

He had been waving the company databoard around and as he pointed to the usual Priority Performance Requirement box, he noted that it was different than the usual box. SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS, it read and it spelled things out in black, red and white for Bert to follow.

McCain hadn’t seen that before, so he slipped his thumb over that part of the display as he continued to sound off. In the back of his mind, he imagined that the company had just now slid that in there in the last few minutes as an update. Just covering their asses and letting the drivers take the heat.

Nothing new there.

He wondered if he had a valid union grievance.

***

Twenty minutes later the military had unloaded the cargo and took it away under armed escort. Bert was pretty sure that was just for show -- after all, what could an ordinary person do with such a thing? If it was all that valuable, wouldn’t he have been given an armed escort?

“So where do you want me, boss?” McCain asked his home office in Boston.

“Pull out of O’Hare and get yourself to the Chicago East Gateway, then take your sleep. We’ll have a run for you tonight.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

He clicked off his comm link and hauled himself back up into the cab. Nowhere in his brief conversation had it occurred to him to apologize -- for he hadn’t done anything wrong.

***

At six o’clock, the office called McCain’s truck and he roused himself. But they didn’t bother to talk to him, the new contract was just loaded onto the screen of his databoard. Optimistic bastards -- they wanted him to leave East Gateway and get to some agribusiness in Indiana in two hours. The only good news? The destination was Waltham, Massachusetts. He was going to get to go home.

Bert wandered into the East Gateway plaza for a pit stop and grabbed a bag of sliders and some coffee. Then he loaded the new route profiles into the dashboard and did a fast start on his main turbine, while he eased out on the electrics -- the big engine was warmed up and ready to surge when the tires hit the plastic pavement on the Sixty-five.

There was rarely any kind of rhyme or reason to PPTP shipments, but it was kind of rare to be taking a truck like this off the speedways and into the farm country. Usually your food products came out of distributorships, unless it was fish on the coasts, so Bert looked up the load code -- it came back as Soy Beans (Bulk). These had to be some kind of soybeans.

***

Monon, Indiana, wasn’t all that far down the Sixty-five and the farmers’ co-op was only about twenty minutes from the speedway. Some of these rural farm businesses were a problem to deal with in a big truck, but this operation turned out to be pretty professional. The truck already had coordinates which must have come from a spotter embedded in the drainslab loading pad. Bert snatched a company ball cap from the rack of caps behind him, as he opened the door to step down to the never-puddling porous concrete.

“Looks like you made good time,” the farmer said.

“Yeah, I was just in Chicago.”

“Oh, not far at all,” the farmer agreed. “I thought I’d be here all night.”

“Guess you get to go home early,” Bert told him, hoping that the man wasn’t about to continue this conversation for the next hour. But it turned all to business pretty quickly. He was loaded and gone early by the contract. Now it was eight hours to get to Waltham. Piece of cake.

***

It felt like he had barely gotten anywhere when his master-of-the-road chirped -- crossing into Ohio changed the time zone. Another hour lost. Then he was annoyed, realizing that the game had long started as he reached over and punched it up. It was already the sixth inning, and wouldn’t you know it, the Bosox were already down two runs. Within a minute he realized that Ballard was leaving Santaro in and once again the pattern was repeating. Already a long season, lately it seemed like it was getting longer every day.

Driving through the night was a mixture of losing baseball games, listening to music and staying awake. Random thoughts. It didn’t make a heckuva lotta sense, using a PPTP run for a load of soybeans, but he never made any opinions on the kinds of cargoes he carried. As long as someone was paying the bills to the company, he’d follow the contract.

Meanwhile, crossing Ohio at 226 kph, he kept an eye on the rain that was coming down out of Canada and making a mess of things in western New York State and northern Pennsylvania. He didn’t like it, but finally he touched the map screen and selected the southern route and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Speedway. He hated to go that way, but it would get him there on time. Maybe he should have taken the Canadian route out of Michigan, instead of crossing Ohio. But who knew?

The problem was that the old turnpike roadbed in the western part of the state was too narrow and twisting, so it was under full road flow controls. As he sped onward, he got that angry little hot pit in his stomach. McCain would never admit that the Seventy-six scared him, so he merely wondered if the sliders he had eaten earlier were just roiling around in there. He reached up and popped open one of the dozens of mini-stowage compartments for a couple of Anti-A’s, and followed that with some more coffee.

Irony was not something that Bert McCain worried about much.

***

He was locked in at 200.0 kph and all he could really do was hold onto the side safety handles as the big Creighman slalomed through the hills past Beaver Falls and Aliquippa. It wasn’t that he hadn’t done high speed mountain driving out West, rather it was this old right-of-way. Roadway engineers would see the beauty in the perfect balance between speed and banking, the precision of exact speed controls. Bert saw lines of trucks and smaller vehicles sliding past each other as those on the inside of any given curve overtook those on the outside. Pittsburgh was off to the south, he guessed, but the terrain was heaved up too high to see any real trace of the city. At New Kensington the two lanes of traffic lined up straight and slammed across the Allegheny River on high bridgework, before resuming the hill driving.

Thirty-one minutes after he entered the controlled highway, his master-of-the-road and dashboard both rang out warnings that it was almost time to retake control. Past Latrobe he was able to start passing some slower traffic at 222 kph. In the next ninety minutes he would trip two speed traps and watch the displays rack up the fines. He was a Priority Driver -- his job was to go fast. Out the Seventy-six and up the Eighty-one to New York State.

When he finally got comfortable driving again, Bert’s brain began to tune in the ongoing rambling conversation from the Boston sports radio program. The game was long over -- the Red Sox losing 7-3 -- and there was now some real news to report. Faris bin Khalil had recently been promoted up to the majors and there had been great speculation when the rookie pitcher would get his debut. Well, it looked as if the next night, make that this night, they would give him his chance. If true, this was the first non-bonehead move made by that idiot Ballard. The Saudi, as he was universally known to the Boston faithful, was the best prospect out of the Middle East in seventy-five years, but that wasn’t why people like Bert McCain were excited. The Saudi had already been a fixture of the Boston sports scene for five years -- first as a fireball starter for Harvard U., taking that school to the Ivy League and NCAA championships four years in a row, and then one season with the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox over next door in Rhode Island, where he was a twenty game winner. No one wanted him brought up too early, but Boston had been waiting for The Saudi to pitch for the Red Sox for years. And to tell the truth, it was clear even from his modest interviews, that bin Khalil was excited about it, too.

Not needing to deal with the traffic on the Eastern seaboard and having no interest in ever seeing Philadelphia again, and finally as a true Bosox fan, he was not going to sully his truck unnecessarily in New York City if he had a choice, Bert’s truck sailed up through the night on the Inland Bypass.

A plan began to form in Bert’s little pea brain. He called Fenway Park to see if there were tickets. The night agent laughed. Fenway in August was sold out even without having The Saudi debuting.

“Okay, smart guy, how about Will Sell?”

“Sure, I gotta couple. What you willing to bid?”

“First base side?”

“Front row, Loge Box, lined up with first base,” the night agent replied.

“Section?”

112.

Those were not bad seats. “Five hundred and one dolleros,” Bert boldly bid. “I gotta Red Sox card number.”

“Of course, Mr. McCain. Mmm, looks like you’re a winner -- five hundred dolleros even.”

Someone else might have been angry to have the ticket scammed for so much. Bert was amused that his strategy of never betting an even dollero amount had “won” again. “Let’s do it.”

“You going to pick this up in the morning?”

“Yeah,” Bert chuckled. “I’ll be by early.”

“We’re here all night.”

Easy deal, Bert thought to himself. And he’d be collecting another major league pitching debut. Things were definitely looking up.

***

Bert McCain had heard the old adage about the night being darkest before the dawn or whatever, but for his money, the worst was right after the damned sun came up. There had been something of a moon earlier in the night, but it had already set or was lost in clouds out behind him or something. So he had gone from pitch black, except for the headlights and displays, to a brightening sky. And now, with the sun up, you had all these dumb bunnies hopping onto the roads, rushing around like there was no tomorrow ’cause they were just starting their day -- and had no consideration for the hard working drivers like himself who had been driving all night. Worse, these were Massachusetts drivers now, so he really knew how awful they could be. He hoped that he didn’t drive over any -- he didn’t want the delay or all the stupid paperwork.

The best part of the dawn this morning, though, was that he could see the kilometers counting down to the delivery point. When he finally slowed down and exited the speedway it was just a short ride to Nikko Tofu, Incorporated -- Established 2565. Their logo was a bright smiling sun shining over sailboats and a lighthouse. It didn’t impress Bert, at least not on this morning. Besides, as far as he was concerned, tofu tasted like mush. At least he’d still have a sandwich to eat when he got back to the truck yard. His run for the week was almost over. Just had to ditch these soybeans.

“So,” Bert said conversationally, as the morning work crew lined up the discharge slide, “These particularly special soybeans?”

“Special?” the foreman asked. “What’ya mean?”

“I mean, you hire a Priority driver an’ all.”

“Oh that,” the foreman dismissed the thought, “That was a special deal. Paul Revere Xpress calls me up and says that they got a deadhead run comin’ in from the Midwest and do we got any suppliers that way. So we say sure.”

“Oh,” Bert replied. Nice of the company to get him back home before the weekend -- they didn’t always bother.

“So I guess,” the foreman went on, “You could say these soybeans are sorta special -- they’re a variety we like.”

“So, uh, what do you do with soybeans at a tofu plant?”

The foreman now looked at McCain as if he was crazy. “Tofu is made out of soy.”

“Really. I did not know that.” His voice transmitted the excitement with which he felt knowing that bit of information.

***

Next stop was 4 Yawkey Way. This early in the morning he slipped his truck into electric drive and took it right into the heart of Boston. Flashers on, he jumped out and crossed the street to the sole open ticket window at Fenway Park.

Minutes later, he continued heading west, turning right then left at Symphony Hall and taking the Dalton Bypass entrance to the Paul Revere Tunnel right where the old Prudential Center had stood before they tore down that sorry old structure a hundred years before. Bert thought that maybe the Boston cop he had seen back there was about to nab him for driving around downtown, but once he was in the tunnel he had pushed up the speed and raced out under the water towards Logan International Space and Airport.

He had been on the road, more or less, since Monday, and seeing the signs for the Paul Revere Xpress and more streamlined rigs just like his was reassuring. What he wasn’t expecting was the storm that was about to break upon his arrival.

***

The dispatcher and the foreman had been busy since yesterday’s debacle in Chicago.

“Come on down, Bert -- bring your logbook.”

“Sure,” he replied, and didn’t disguise the sour, annoyed look on his face as he pulled the logbook module from the console next to him. Then he hopped down.

The foreman took the logbook and handed it to the dispatcher, who didn’t even look at it. “You missed the Chicago contract.”

“Hey, they’re playing fast and loose over there in Windy,” Bert immediately argued. “I was there within the terms of a Priority contract.”

“But it wasn’t a normal contract.”

“And you called me like when to alert me to that little fact?” Bert was now even more sure that this was just the company trying to cover its own ass at his expense.

“And Albuquerque last week.”

“Hey, that was that screwy thing with the screwy time zones in Arizona.”

This went on until the foreman just shook his head. “It’s never your fault, is it, Bert?”

“That’s right,” he readily agreed. “When you’ve been driving as long as I have...”

“You’d think you’d get better at this job, Bert, not worse. Sixty-one missed contracts in your last five years -- forty-eight of those in the last two years.”

“There’s more traffic than there used to be. That War thing,” McCain protested. He thought it was a good case.

“You rang up two-hundred-and-sixty-two dolleros worth of fines on this last run.”

“Yeah and I made the contract on time.”

“A lossy deadhead run contract.”

“To you, I didn’t know -- you didn’t tell me.”

“You didn’t call to check in.”

“Hey, I didn’t set up the damned deal -- you guys did. And last time I was checking, a deadhead run was better than nothin’.”

“And we clocked you with a hundred and twelve in fines in Missouri and Illinois -- and there you didn’t make the contract.”

“There was a freak show wreck at the Chicago border! I was under road controls -- what was I supposed to do?”

“You still missed the contract because you were too busy playing with your stereo than clocking time on the road.”

“I thought I had time,” Bert shot back, missing the point of the previous sentence.

“Getting to Chicago was important. Real important. Lives depended on it.”

“Like I was supposed to know.”

“It was a Priority run -- the customer hired Paul Revere Xpress for a reason -- to make damned sure that unit got there on time. That didn’t happen.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“We’ve got to make some changes here.”

“Well, if it’s all the same to you guys, I’ve got my seniority -- I want to stay on the road.”

“Sorry, Bert -- we just can’t afford to keep you on the payroll with this kind of lousy performance,” the foreman crossed his arms.

“Are you suspending me?” Bert was incredulous.

“No -- we’re firing your ass.”

“For what?!”

Rather than answering him, the dispatcher held up a databoard, which began to play. It showed Bert driving, and the sound of Terry Faro in the background. You could just make out the strange noise from the errant speaker. After a few seconds, it switched to show Bert telling his man Benny to fake the telemetry dump.

“You forgot that we have security cams on all our rigs,” the foreman reminded him.

“To say nothing of backups of all log files,” the dispatcher added.

The foreman held his hand out. “Your keys, please.”

“I want my union rep here.”

“He’s standing right behind you.”

Bert turned around. There were also two security guards in uniform next to the union rep. “I’m gonna file a grievance.”

“Stop by the union hall,” the rep replied.

“Can they do this?”

“They can do this.”

“For now, though.”

“We’ll see.”

The foreman cleared his throat. “Get the hell off the property, Bert -- you don’t work here any more.”

Reluctantly Bert gathered his logbook and went to mount the cab. But the security guard who had hopped up there glared him down. “We’ll send your personal effects ’round to your place, Mr. McCain.”

“I kind of need my briefcase,” Bert looked sheepishly up at the man.

“What’s in it?”

“House keys. My lunch.”

To his surprise -- and annoyance -- the guard flipped the briefcase onto the seat cushion and managed to open it right away. Damn thing must have had cheesy locks or something. And then his keys and his lunch flat were handed down to him. The guard glared at him something fierce in a tone that said Don’t ask for the briefcase now.

“Okay, I’m set.”

“Tommy here will escort you then.”

Bert turned and there was a third security guard standing behind him.

“This way, Mr. McCain.”

Anyone else would have been defeated by this show of company power. But Bert McCain wasn’t anyone else -- he was smarter than that. No, what Bert McCain was rolling over in his mind as he was escorted to the gate and put into a waiting cab that some flunky must have called, was just how much he might be able to get by suing the bastards and filing for false termination under the union’s agreements. He had a cousin who worked on cases like that. There had been one last year, not exactly like this, that had netted the poor bastard who’d lost his job about seventeen million dolleros. He could live on that for a while.

As the cab disappeared, the foreman stood there with the union rep. “You guys gonna cause us any problems?”

“’Bout what?” the rep asked in all innocence.

“About your Brother McCain.”

“You mean Bert McCain? The guy who was just removed for cause?”

“Yeah.”

The rep spat on the edge of the plastic pavement. “That guy ain’t one of our brotherhood. The shop steward signed off on him half an hour ago. He had it comin’.”

“Makes our lives easier then.”

“This ain’t about makin’ your life easier, Lou,” the rep reminded him. “This is about a Priority Driver who doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrase There’s a war on, sonny, now get this to Chicago on time.

“Nice to know that the Brotherhood cares.”

“Hey, I gotta kid humpin’ cargo on the Jupiter-Saturn run. Says he was there when the War broke out. Said that Fleet tore out of Saturn like it was the ends of the world. An’ when they got their first war wreck brought in for repairs, he said he knew it was the ends of the world. So don’t give me no shit about how the company cares about this or the union cares about that. I’d go sign up tomorrow if I thought I could do something good. But all I know is these damned trucks. So my boy’s Out There. That’ll do it for me.”

The two men stood there silently for a long moment. Then the foreman turned to look back on the yard. “Makes you kind of think, then, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. This could all go like that,” the rep snapped his finger. “Most days it ain’t worth thinkin’ about, if you wanna get through the day.”

“Yeah.”

The union rep then poked the foreman in the shoulder. “You see that game last night?”

“What game?” the foreman replied, lifting up the cover on his databoard and checking the updates on the next drivers. “That was a joke. Same as the night before.”

“You tellin’ me? I was there. An’ I’m tellin’ you, if it weren’t for the dogs and the beer, there’d be no reason to go out to the ballpark.”

“I got in late the last two nights. Sat down on Tuesday just in time to see Norman...”

“Please!” the rep held up both hands. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Ballard is an idiot.”

“Absolutely, my friend. You got that right.”

“You hear that The Saudi’s pitchin’ tonight?”

“’Bout time.”

“Yeah. Maybe we can win this thing yet.”

“I’ll settle for whipping the Yankees next time.”

The two men smiled and shook hands, then went their separate ways. Somewhere else in the yard, the sound of a turbine engine winding up to start and then the breathy sound of its exhaust when it did, kept the smile on the foreman’s face. There was another Priority driver heading out. Probably Ruiz... Ruiz Liscombe. Another run for the company, another dollero in the bank.

Business could be good. If you had the right people.

 

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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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Last Update: 02 May 2008 Friday