One hundred and forty kilometers per hour was the speed at which the auto pilot guided the behemoth tractor-trailer on the long straight-a-ways of the Canadian prairie. The diesel hummed as it barreled down the lonely concrete road; its nano-processor brain navigating by laser-spacial-recognition and by pinging embedded RFID chips.
Bear was no truck driver in the classic sense. His function was more that of strategist, leaving the mundane tactics to the onboard computer systems. If it wasn’t for the political clout of the Teamsters, his job might have been automated completely long ago.
Outside the cab it was black and moonless. The arc of the truck’s headlamps on the narrow river of cracked cement was the only light besides the stars. The fringe of the road and the centerline were outlined in incandescent green on the holographic windshield. Approaching obstacles, curves, or traffic was illuminated on the glass giving Bear several seconds to overrule the navigational computer’s proposed course of action. Bear had made no overrides in the last hour. The highway was completely desolate.
Devin gazed out one of the cab’s portal windows in the back. The far off black horizon slowly rolled past the backdrop of a star-spangled Canadian sky. The Milky Way was prominent— like a swath of diamond dust streaking across the black dome of the heavens.
Devin imagined the intrepid pioneers aboard the Magellan, en route to Mars some years back, gazing out from similarly shaped portals, contemplating the infinite as the cosmic radiation slowly unzipped their DNA. There wasn’t enough room in the six hundred trillion dollar budget to develop better shielding.
Man on Mars was a grand diversion from war, hyperinflation, and boiling domestic chaos. It was birthed with the sparks of international fireworks and it died by the radiation of a rogue solar flare. All that was left were seven frozen corpses in a tin can hurtling towards the Oort cloud.
The brilliant sky also reminded Devin of Goldstein. It contrasted the grayish, starless, murky nights that reigned over the Amerikan megalopolis.
There was once an environmental mandate to curb the “insidious evil” of light pollution. Homes were required to install windows with opacity controls. It was a boon for the fledgling, sensor-glass industry which lobbied hard for the environmentally conscious legislation.
But soon after, certain governmental offices were exempted from the rules. Next, certain neighborhoods were exempted, then politically connected businesses. Eventually, the only ones left complying with the mandate were the minority of citizenry that had no money, no identity, and no political clout. A fifty story condo would remain fully illuminated with flashing advertisements and a halo of safety lighting at all hours of the night while a next door neighbor would have to go completely black lest Pollution Enforcement cut their power off and issue them a $10,000 fine.
“Come on up front if you want,” offered Bear to Devin. Devin slid into the co-captain’s chair. “Beautiful night, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely,” Devin replied.
“We’re two days away. The road winds into the mountains soon so I’m gonna pull over in about an hour or so and get some rest. I’m saving my syn-phetamines for the last push to Fairbanks.”
“Works for me,” Devin replied.
“Your friend asleep?”
“She is.” Devin rubbed his eyes. He was tired but the drone of the engine and the coziness of the sparsely lit cab appealed to him. He wanted to savor the safe feeling as it was one he had not felt in longer than he could remember.
“Why do you do this, Bear?” Devin asked.
“Do what? Drive trucks?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Hmm. Well, I guess I’m what you’d call a ‘free agent’. I’m just selling my skills to the highest bidder.”
“Don’t you ever worry about what would happen if you get caught…you know…smuggling?”
“Sure. That’s why I take precautions. You could say my client list is very selective.”
“But if they did catch you…”
“They won’t catch me. Or should I say, they won’t bust me. I have well-connected clients on all sides. They’d get me out of a jam one way or another.”
“So you’re a double agent of sorts?”
“Like I said before, a free agent.”
“Do you work with Goldstein much?”
“Not directly. I’ve worked with your friend Roth before but he’s not officially a Goldsteiner.”
“I owe Roth a great deal.”
“Roth is a free agent just like me. He’s paid me to move product from Goldstein to container ships and super-jets and trucks like this very one you’re ridin’ in.”
“What do you know about Brooks?” Devin asked.
“He’s the guy that makes them chips. Trillionaire, I’m told. I guess he’s sold a lot of them little gold things.”
“He’s made a lot of Chinese businessmen wealthy,” Devin remarked.
“Why do you laugh?”
“He’s made a few Numenor suits wealthy too.”
“He deals with Numenor? Wouldn’t Goldstein would cut him off if he did that?”
“Not at all. He’s free to do what he pleases. We’re all part of the ‘supply chain’. From Brooks to Roth. From Roth to me. Me to the Chinese. The Chinese to Numenor. Numenor to NaPol. And each of us takes a big fat cut along the way.”
“So Brooks enables NaPol? I just can’t believe it, a Goldstein Council member selling chips that go into Numenor pulse emitters.”
“You can’t believe it because you don’t understand the world yet. You ain’t got no perspective. You can’t…what do they say?…you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Devin laughed. “I would never do anything to help NaPol.”
“You’re already helping them. We’re all pawns. You help them in one way or another. You can either be their errand boy or their whipping boy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your problem,” Bear continued, “is that you didn’t make your abilities available to any of them. That’s why they want to break you down.”
“NaPol, Goldstein, Numenor, whoever. What good are you if you don’t make yourself useful? No one can really go it alone, Devin. Not unless they want to live in a cave somewhere. Take me for instance. I make my skills available to all sides, for a price of course. Funny how they have no problem payin’ it and funny how I seem to stay out a trouble, too.”
“What about your principles?”
“Principles? Principles are bullshit. Principles are for fools. You’ve got to be more realistic if you want to survive in this world. Those crusader types always think that utopia’s right around the corner. Well, I’ve got news for you: It’s not. Things’ll never change. The guys that can print the money and carry the guns will never let it happen!”
“So give up?”
“You know what happens to crusaders?”
“They end up ruined. Don’t piss off the guys with guns. You don’t have to sell your soul to them, just figure out how to make yourself useful to them so they pay you and leave you alone. That’s the best revenge. Exploit’em I say. Leave the lost cause to the nut jobs.”
Bear changed the subject. “Look in that glove compartment.” Devin opened the console. Inside was a bundle of folded papers. “Look under those papers…” Devin pulled the papers out of the way revealing a pistol. “Now, I know I just said that I always stay out of trouble.”
“Yes, you did…”
“Well, that’s true for me but there’s no guarantee for you. In the event that we get pulled over and they want to poke around in here you’re gonna have to make some tough choices.”
“…Which are totally up to you. I doubt it’ll come to that way out here in the middle of nowhere. Mounties would rather make a deal than start a confrontation with folks on these lonely roads. But just in case...”
“Just in case what? You mean shoot it out?”
“Either shoot them or shoot yourself. The Mounties’ll hand you over to NaPol just as quick as you can say ‘rendition’. And I don’t think you wanna go back there.”
“No, definitely not. But what about you?”
“If you shoot a trooper it’ll make things real complicated. We’ll have to make a run for it. You’ll, of course, be a madman who held me at gunpoint the whole way, at least that’s what I’ll say. If you shoot yourself then everything works out fine and dandy for me. But if they get you alive, I doubt Brooks’ll be able to rescue you again. Whatever you do, please don’t shoot me. And if you do decide it’s hopeless and shoot yourself, try to keep your brains aimed out the window.”
“Will do,” Devin assured him as he handled the 9mm.
“Son of a bitch! Speak of the devil…”
An alert beacon flashed in the windshield with the logo of the Canadian Mounted Police. Bear took the controls of the truck, slowed the diesel down and guided it onto the gravel shoulder.
“Stay calm. Get in the back and stay out of sight. Wake your girlfriend up and keep her quiet.”
The truck came to a stop on the shoulder of the dark highway.
“Keep the pistol with you and watch us on the monitors. If he cuffs me and comes up here to take a look inside then do what you have to do.”
Behind them, the flashers of a highway patrol car illuminated the darkness in bursts of red and gold. Bear got out of the truck and walked back to meet the officer. It was completely silent. Devin woke Ramielle.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Shhh,” Devin ordered. “Look.”
They watched Bear on the monitor approach the Mounty in the faint glow of the truck’s running lights. The officer met him about halfway back alongside the trailer. The officer spoke but was out of audible range. Then Bear spoke. The officer pointed at the trailer and Bear nodded his head. The officer spoke some more while Bear pointed down the road. The officer kept talking while Bear nodded. The officer pointed towards the cab. Bear shook his head.
Devin squeezed the cold, tactile handle on the pistol. His grip on it was sweaty and slick. The officer walked along the trailer towards the cab. Bear continued talking. The officer approached the door. Bear started pleading. Devin pushed the safety in on the pistol with his thumb and slipped his index finger over the trigger. Ramielle stopped breathing as Devin slowly raised the gun.
The officer’s footfalls in the gravel were just outside the driver’s door. Devin could hear Bear bargaining with him. The officer reached for the door handle. Ramielle’s eyes froze in a wide, unblinking stare. Devin raised the pistol to the driver side window. The officer pulled himself onto the running board and gazed into the cab. Devin quietly eased forward in the darkness with the barrel of the gun pointed towards the window.
Bear stopped bargaining. The officer held still as he peered blindly into the blackness of the cab. Devin breathed in deeply, consciously, quietly. The pistol was pointed at the officer’s face. It would be a point blank shot through the glass.
When the officer finally opened the door Devin would order him to freeze. No, that would be useless. The cop would draw his pistol and fire. There would be a shootout regardless. Ramielle would probably be killed. If he survived, he would be hunted down.
No. He couldn’t kill this man. He was just some pawn doing his job. What would he do, then? Shoot himself?
No. He wouldn’t shoot himself. Suicide is to rash. Besides, his brains would get all over the plush carpet in the back of Bear’s cab.
The four of them stood there, motionless, silent, frozen in time in the middle of the night on the lonely highway at the foot of the Canadian Rockies with the Milky Way sparkling above. Bear watched the cop with nothing left to say or offer. The cop stared into the dark cab, seemingly oblivious to the gun pointed at his face. Ramielle watched Devin, wanting him to do something, anything to end the tension, ready to burst out screaming with the breath she had been clenching for several seconds. Devin was immersed in his own indecisive terror, aiming the pistol at the black silhouette in the window. His finger began to tense, to squeeze ever so slightly.
Sensing something, the Mounty balked. “What am I doing staring into a dark cab in the middle of the night on a lonely highway?” He asked himself. He stepped back off the running board and began talking with Bear again, using him as a shield.
“I’ve reconsidered your offer,” the cop remarked.
The two of them walked back to the patrol car where they made some sort of a deal. Devin pushed the safety in on the pistol and Ramielle finally exhaled.
A minute later, Bear returned and fired up the diesel engine. The patrol car u-turned and went back down the lonely highway, disappearing into the darkness from whence it came.
Chapter 18 Chapter 20 will be available Sunday
For those who missed the beginning of Devin's journey, click here for Chapter 1
Goldstein Republic can be purchased here at Amazon