Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

The Gamecocks

Leslie Anne Moore had known Hardy Devine since second grade, when he had bloodied her nose in a game of dodgeball and then the other boys caught him crying about it and beat him pissy.

By the end of the school year, Hardy had picked a fight with each one of those boys individually and found more satisfactory results. He didn’t look Leslie-Anne square in the eye again until seventh grade when he asked her to the Boone County Middle School Homecoming Dance and she said no.

When she was nineteen, she moved to the Tennessee end of Bristol for a job at a fulfillment center where she met Hardy’s little brother, Woodrow. She kind of remembered him from school; he knew exactly who she was.

Woodrow Devine looked like something you’d beat a horse with, all bone and gristle and home-cut hair, eyes bloodshot he said because he had been up all night studying.

“Studying what?” Leslie Anne said.

“Computers.”

It sounded made up. It sounded like an excuse. Woodrow Devine seemed like the kind ready-made for the Risen Again, marching drunkenly toward the most generous death possible, wrapped in improvised explosives and the Confederate Flag. Woodrow Devine said:

“Hardy’s gone off to the army. He was real interested when I said we was working together.”

“To war?”

“He’s in Honduras right now, getting hound-trained.”

A friendly blue light ignited above their station and chimed like somebody’d forgotten to turn the headlights off. Even as they glanced up, the blue was warming towards red, the machine intelligence monitoring the camera feed unsatisfied with the slackened pace of their work.

“Too much chit-chat.” Woodrow grinned and redoubled his speed, stacking bunched bananas into the shipping pods, alternating stems up, stems down, moving with a speed and concentration to prove his labor was more efficient at the cost of his salary than it would be to build and program a robot. At least until they could engineer uniform-length bananas.

Turned out Woodrow really had been studying all this time, and he moved to Richmond for a job programming grocery store Stockboys, and then a job in Hoboken where he was far enough away that the ladies at the Kroger stopped talking about him.

• • • •

A year later, Hardy came into the titty bar where Leslie Anne was waiting tables and definitely not stripping. The carnival lighting of the place hid the scarlet flush of his embarrassment, and he stared unmoving at the mouth of his Budweiser for a full five minutes, bare flesh dancing in his peripheral vision.

“Hey, Hardy. I know you saw me.”

“Hey, Leslie Anne.”

“I only serve drinks here.”

“I only come here because it’s the one bar that doesn’t have TV’s up all over the place.”

“It’s all right if you want to watch the girls dance.”

“I just don’t want to have to look at all the TV’s.”

“How long you been back?”

“I don’t know. Couple months, I guess.”

“I think I’ve seen you driving around. In your mom’s old van.”

“Yeah.”

“Were you goin’ somewhere?”

He smiled like an apology and looked at his hands.

She had seen him half a dozen times in the last few months, aimlessly meandering in the rusted-out red minivan every member of his family had serially owned before him, crossing and re-crossing his own path, directionless and fast. It was an uncomfortable question with too long or too short of an answer. Hardy went to the titty bar for the titties, Hardy drove to drive.

Anyway, they fell in love.

They’d dance in the parking lot behind Hank’s Saloon, because the music inside was too loud for Hardy. The army was still experimenting with custom-printed amphetamines and Hardy felt certain one of the speeds they had tried on him had clocked his brain for an amplified sensitivity to certain frequencies. A snare drum, scissors closing, or torn paper just about killed him. The hum of an engine was warm water on a cold day. The sound of Leslie Anne’s limbs drowsily sliding across cotton sheets was so pleasant that it just about broke him in half.

• • • •

Leopoldo had been in Kashgar with Hardy. A tattoo of a fanged skull decorated with the Confederate flag covered his back above scrolled text reading “Let Us Go Home and Cultivate Our Virtues.” Leopoldo had bought the ink when he got back to the States, tired of being mistaken for an Arab.

He said to Hardy, “Trucks, man. Easiest money in the world. Just like the ’dillos in the Basin but lighter. Listen to your phone, watch the road go by.”

“I don’t got a CDL.”

“They’ll give you a loan, they’ll even pay you a little bit while you’re taking the classes. Them trucking companies in serious shit. Hey, girl, get me another Coke?”

“You can get it,” Leslie said. She was lying in the grass, eyes closed, listening to the water in the creek and the wind moving the kudzu.

Leopoldo was right, the trucking companies were in serious shit.

Three years earlier, the industry had attempted to move into driverless rigs with catastrophic results. In Tempe, Arizona, an autonomously piloted Heartland Express semi filled with frozen tubes of Finely Textured Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings mistook a buzzard picking at roadkill for a human child and swerved across the median into oncoming traffic. Five people were killed in the collisions, and hundreds were sickened when the pink slime thawed into the Salt River, where it festered and spread. Less than a week later, an autonomous casino bus was involved in a crash that killed nine. All evidence pointed to human error as the cause in the second crash, but public panic and political hyperbole had risen to a point that some sort of hammer had to come down on robot drivers.

Laws changed. Stocks fell. Truck drivers who had been lucratively bought out of their union contracts decided they enjoyed retirement and the hauling companies were forced to seek out a green workforce with offers of generous salaries, benefits, and training. Hardy asked:

“Even fucked up vets with more debts than prospects?”

“Fucked up vets especially,” Leopoldo said.

“My dad was a trucker,” Hardy said. “Weekends, me and Woodrow would help him wash it.”

So Hardy put in an application at Boone America Long Distance Hauling. The mascot on every truck was a “B.A.L.D. Eagle,” grinning with human teeth in its beak, eyes narrowed against the onrush of wind.

Hardy got a loan to train and was paid nearly enough to make it up. He took CDL tests until he passed, he did time in simulators, he trained at the Boone site in Arkansas for two weeks, then drove with a trainer for two weeks more, and then he was a driver.

Boone gave him a contract with a three-year minimum and crisis medical, with riders for non-compete and non-labor.

A couple good years passed. Hardy and Leslie Anne got a little apartment in town and then his brother Woodrow helped them put a down payment on a little house that got steadily prettier as they fixed up what they could. Leslie Anne sewed curtains.

Hardy didn’t talk much, but Leslie Anne had lots of friends now and she’d tell them she didn’t mind a quiet man.

They were eating cereal in front of the TV and Hardy was looking at her.

“What?” she said.

“Hey.”

“What is it, Hardy?”

“Can we get married?”

So they got married.

Woodrow came back to town for the wedding. Leslie Anne’s mother spent five days making a cake. Her father said he couldn’t make the drive up from Florida but sent as gift some Jehovah’s Witness tracts he found a comfort.

Hardy took a week off work, but Leslie Anne’s boss at the fulfillment center said the algorithm wouldn’t allow more absence until the autumn. She told him she guessed she’d quit then and the next day she drove with Hardy down to the Gulf of Mexico and spent four days drunk and screwing.

• • • •

Driving sometimes, Hardy could feel the inertia of eighty thousand pounds behind him, seventy miles an hour. It felt like the illusion could break at any moment and the terrible onrush of potential explosive violence would envelop him in crushing glory. Every load delivered felt like a bullet dodged.

Truck stops were edgy and lonesome places at night, the implied violence of strange men in the dark, pimps whispering promises of trailer bunny tail over the CB. Hardy walked with his keys starburst between his fingers and his attention at the peripherals and made sure to be in his locked cab by ten.

Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks at a stretch and Leslie Anne would flirt with men at Hank’s but never let it go further than dancing.

Hardy’s silences were often anger; he never hit her, but he would break things around the house, slowly, deliberately. He liked the sound of shattered pottery.

Leopoldo had an easy time making friends; he knew a lot of other drivers. Hardy said he liked driving because he liked being alone, but Leopoldo would keep at him until Hardy would come along to soccer matches and card games and nights drinking. There were times it would almost get easy.

Once, when Hardy was away, Leslie went to Hank’s with a friend who had just left her fiancé.

“Marryin’ that man would have been a disaster,” she said, “I thought I loved him, but I was just lonely and young enough to believe in made-up things.”

Leslie Anne felt blue hearing it.

• • • •

When the wheels came off, they came off fast. It started with a clever piece of marketing. AI had been flying airplanes for half a decade with a spotless safety record, even landing with zero fatalities a half dozen aircraft catastrophically depressurized by Risen Again martyrs. So when they claimed that aircraft AI had been altered and would replace the faulty and unfortunate intelligence that had failed the trucking industry, they called it “The Pilot Program” and folks swallowed it whole.

It was mid-September at a gravel yard outside Memphis that Hardy saw his first Autonomous Rig, the oddly squished cab, like a boxy horseshoe crab painted a pink that was meant to make it seem innocuous but mostly suggested the domed sex organ of some deep sea leviathan.

The autorigs were already built, thousands of them sitting in lots, mothballed and just waiting for new operating systems. They were activated in droves, released to drive themselves to work across the country.

By March of the following year, Hardy’s boss told him he’d only be needed for short-haul runs. He went the entire month of June without driving, and he and Leslie Anne had to clean out their meager savings to cover the credit cards and utilities. A kitchen renovation formerly just within their means was necessarily abandoned midway and Leslie Anne had to carry water in from the garden hose.

• • • •

Hardy and Leopoldo drank a case of beer on the pedestrian overpass to the interstate, watching the autorigs barrel up the highway in the dark of night, sometimes twenty of them spaced close as train cars, drafting for the efficiency. Bullroarers toned off the fairings as the electric engines were deadly silent. Autorigs didn’t swerve, or even slow for animals on the road; a deer struck by autorig would be near-liquefied.

Hardy hung against the chain link covering the overpass and pissed drunkenly down onto the machines.

“What are we gonna do, Leo?” he said.

“We almost had it, didn’t we? Like our daddies and granddaddies, a good job. A fair wage. We could have worked.” He pronounced “worked” like it was capitalized, like it was an element of doctrine.

There had been meetings. Drivers gathered at events carefully referred to only as drinking, as card games, carefully avoiding any legally provable union activity. All of them, by contract, could be fined a half-year’s average salary for breaching their Labor Rider.

Hardy said: “They’ll grind us down.”

“Not if we can’t be ground.”

“You got an idea?”

He did.

• • • •

The next day, both of them red-eyed and raw with dead alcohol, Leopoldo took Hardy to the parlor where he had gotten his ink, past the empty chairs, and into a back room where nine pale and heavy men sat drinking Styrofoam cups of pale and sugared coffee. The skylights were covered with Confederate flags. They all talked on top of each other, in the tones you’d use to lecture wicked children, about Jews and Blacks and Arabs and Robots. It could have been funny without all the loaded guns around.

The Risen Again. A new Confederacy of the violently-inclined dispossessed. A movement careful not to too clearly state an ethos, lest they reveal the inner contradictions that would drive them to bloody disillusion.

A frog-shaped man with a beard like rangy moss that could thrive in the shade of his neck but never face the daylight of his cheeks showed Hardy a homemade kitana he claimed to have used to cut the leg off of a dark-skinned home invader, “clean as a snapped Slimjim.” The man was a government informant, as were two others. Another was a corporate informant. Far distant machines monitored their conversation via tiny microphones, culling relevant and inflammatory phrases to forward to the appropriate departments.

They talked about bombs and arson. The cleansing and holy fire. Protecting their hyperbolically infantilized wives and children. They talked about church and didn’t mention God.

It all made Hardy very tired.

He and Leopoldo left and Hardy said he didn’t intend to come back.

• • • •

Hardy and Leslie Anne had a bad couple of months. Summer was brutally hot and tropically wet. Hardy took jobs fixing houses or clearing debris, working alongside Guatemalans and Salvadorans who didn’t have to question why exactly Hardy got to eat lunch with the boss. Leslie Anne took a second job working nights at the Waffle House and still the debts just grew. Hardy’s work paid in barter as often as cash.

An investigator scanning machine-curated surveillance found footage of Hardy gainfully employed and Boone Hauling found him in breach of his still-exclusive contract. The company fined him two month’s average pay. Debt piled upon debt; Hardy’s credit card stopped working and Leslie Anne’s was maxed.

Leopoldo kept coming around to collect Hardy and Leslie Anne for parties and picnics that only celebrated charity, a dozen unemployed truckers making stone soup. They began to attend church twice a week; there was a pancake breakfast after the Sunday service and a spaghetti dinner after Friday prayer. Hardy recognized a few men from the back of the tattoo parlor.

• • • •

They had to ask Leslie Anne’s mother for a loan. The old woman’s pity was worse than scorn. A week later she died.

Leslie Anne cried when the medical examiner at the county coroner’s office named the price for releasing the ashes, and he let her carry them away for free so long as they weren’t in the county-provided cardboard urn. She took the ashes in a gallon milk jug Hardy cut with his pocket knife into a pitcher. The gray dust was speckled with chips of her mother’s bones like baby teeth.

Woodrow came down for the funeral. He spent more on a rental car than Leslie Anne and Hardy had made in three months.

Leslie Anne realized she had never seen the brothers together outside of school. They didn’t know each other much as people, Hardy couldn’t have named Woodrow’s friends or lovers, had almost no idea what he did for money. But they knew each other like animals, a physical ease impossible to quantify. They tumbled into each other like dogs.

Woodrow was shocked at their poverty. How Leslie Anne had to go out to the yard to pull a glass of water from the hose. Tea sun-brewed from raspberry leaf and sassafras to save the expense of store-bought.

They scattered her mother’s ashes in the mountains, and then Woodrow took them out for dinner. Woodrow filled a room now like he never had before; money and life in the city had made him confident. He flirted with the waitress. He knew this town and all of its customs down to the last button, but wasn’t held by any of it.

Leslie Anne left the boys with their bourbon and walked home in warm moonlight, pleasantly drunk.

At dawn she found Hardy asleep on the front porch with dried blood on his knuckles.

She bicycled into town and found Woodrow asleep in the back of his rental car. He looked like he had been used to beat a horse, one eye nearly swollen shut, lip split, hair matted crimson-brown.

He looked at her with that old embarrassment, like he was a boy again.

“Does Hardy ever hit you?” he asked.

“No. Never.”

“Are you sure?”

“I guess I’d know.”

She helped him to the apartment he was renting and made coffee while he cried in the shower.

She called through the door, “I’m gonna leave.”

He called back, “Don’t.”

She heard the water stop.

He put on more clothes than the weather called for and they sat on the porch. Leslie drank the coffee and Woodrow sipped at a bottle of frozen water as it thawed.

“I’m not The Guy,” Woodrow said. “There isn’t A Guy, it’s too large a project, based on too many other people’s work. The earliest bits of the algorithm are from drones. Like. Toys you get at the pharmacy. Or for delivery. Took bits from that, from cars, from airplanes, video games. It was more collage than anything.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Woodrow.”

“The mind that drives the trucks. The programming. I helped make that.”

“Get the fuck outta here.”

“It’s not like it’s the only thing the company makes.”

“You made the computer that got Hardy fired.”

“I only said I worked on it. A lot of people did. I just do safety.”

“Jesus Christ, Woodrow.”

“I know.”

“I mean, Jesus.”

“Hardy wasn’t happy about it either.”

She stood up and hung her head, laughing without mirth, looked at her empty coffee cup.

“The world’s just too small.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I mean, God damn.”

Small world. Woodrow went back to Jersey without saying goodbye to Hardy.

• • • •

Leslie Anne said to Hardy: “I saw your brother. He was in pretty bad shape.”

“That’s all done.” And he turned away.

• • • •

Three days later, Woodrow sent Leslie Anne ten thousand dollars. She and Hardy were sharing a phone, and Hardy saw it first and sent the money back. He didn’t tell her about it.

A month after that, Boone Hauling sent somebody to take Hardy’s car. Hardy knew the man.

“Sorry about this, Hardy.”

“Ain’t you, Bill.”

Leslie Anne tried to sell her mother’s house, but nobody was buying.

Leopoldo kept calling, but Hardy wouldn’t answer.

And Hardy’s silences were growing. He’d spend days sober on the side of the highway, equally comforted by the sounds of the engines and tormented by their lifeless pilots.

Leslie Anne dug into their bank account records, looking to prove a bill had already been paid, and discovered the three times Woodrow had sent them money and Hardy had refused it.

She confronted Hardy and they fought. She yelled and cried and shoved him. She called him proud, and he just quietly repeated that word as he moved through the house and broke things.

“Proud. Proud. Proud.” A teapot. A lamp. Every one of the porcelain lambs Leslie Anne’s mother had left behind.

She walked out of the house and away as things shattered and ground behind her. She slept in her mother’s empty house, which she hated for its memories of her father.

She went back the next day and Hardy was gone.

Turned out he was at the crime scene.

• • • •

Leopoldo had walked into the Boone Hauling Lexington Branch offices and detonated a homemade explosive, killing the receptionist and himself, and causing light hearing damage to a regional manager.

He posted a video online trying to describe the desperation of his life, the corruption and greed of the military, his employers, the medical industry that was letting popcorn lung kill his son, but it was a jumbled diatribe with too much emotion and too many facts. Life was not fair and he could not bear it.

Hardy watched the law pull zipped vinyl bags and opaque plastic buckets away from the burn-scarred regional office.

Hardy went to the tattoo parlor and found its entrances covered in plywood. One of the workers converting the old library to a private residence a half-block away told him federal agents had raided it just yesterday. He said: “Lucky ones got took by the government. That big boy got took by something private, looked like. His ass gone.”

At Leopoldo’s funeral, Leslie Anne watched Hardy talk quietly with a dozen other men she had never seen before. When she asked about them, Hardy only said, “They’re drivers.”

Leslie Anne left. She stayed at her mother’s house, which she emptied out and scrubbed and painted.

Hardy stayed at the house they had bought for a few weeks until the bank took it, and then he went into the woods.

Leslie Anne didn’t know where he was, or what he was doing.

Woodrow called once, saying that he had talked to his brother on the phone and he was worried. Hardy kept asking exactly how safe the autorigs were. Woodrow asked him if he was planning to do something stupid, and Hardy had said, “Not anymore.”

• • • •

Leslie Anne saw Hardy on the news, just like everybody else did.

Autorigs had more eyes than a spider, and most cars had at least a couple cameras. Dozens of points of view were edited together, one vantage after another roaring at eighty miles per hour towards a tiny figure a hundred yards down the highway, in a matter of seconds close enough to make sense of his face and then blasting past him.

The videos show Hardy walk along the edge of the road, up an overpass where three highways overlap on the outskirts of Knoxville, within five miles of three enormous fulfillment centers, close enough to be thick with autorig traffic but far enough away for the vehicles to have reached full speed.

Hardy steps across the white line and out onto the road. Horns immediately blare, panicked from the human drivers and steadily from the machines.

Human-driven cars swerve and skid; one car accelerates and pulls hard to the left lane, its driver communicating anger with the tone and duration of the heel of his hand on the horn. Every autorig within line of sight sharply decelerates, an uncanny effect of Hitchcockian visual vertigo from the view of their onboard cameras, as a dozen enormous objects slow at the exact same pace against a visual field, like an optical compression of the world.

Hardy walks into the path of an autorig hauling ten tons of stripped and treated pine, maybe sixty yards or so up the road. It has less than four seconds to react.

The lumber rig’s horn sounds, loud and steady, the brakes clattering like gravel in a tin cup, irregularly, at a frequency algorithm-determined to most efficiently slow the vehicle, but there’s no fighting inertia.

Every muscle in Hardy’s face is clenched with anxiety, jaw locked. A child watching the hypodermic needle descend.

The truck swerves left, the algorithm choosing the safest path.

And Hardy makes a choice on some deeply subterranean level, stepping to his right, the autorig’s left, more centrally in death’s way. And all the anxiety evacuates his expression, just like that and just for a moment, leaving only peace and certainty.

And then.

The autorig pulls hard left and brushes violently against his side. Furiously spinning vulcanized rubber singes the legs of his cargo pants, air pressure shoves into him like a friendly and enormous dog.

The truck smashes through the central barrier and into oncoming traffic, the squat nose of the cab breaking and lifting an SUV that spins in midair so that its roof is struck like a billiard ball by the chained logs, caroming ahead in an explosion of safety glass. Its only passenger is a woman returning from the night shift at a television station, her life momentarily preserved by the remarkable engineering of her vehicle. She’s alive after the two-story fall from the overpass onto the eastbound highway below. But when the autorig breaks through the steel-and-concrete barrier lining the overpass, the chains on its bed snap and a volley of eight-hundred-pound javelins soaked in pentachlorophenol are loosed.

The impact so thoroughly muddles the woman into the machinery of her vehicle that, despite the best efforts of the medical examiners, her casket would contain as much metal and plastic as flesh.

Already Hardy is walking back down the side of the overpass. Wood shatters and metal screams beneath him. Three more people are dead by the time he’s back on flat road.

Hardy breaks into a jog, the easy pace of a Marine covering ground. Over thirty on-board vehicle and security cameras catch a glimpse of Hardy before he makes it to the edge of the trees, and once he’s in the woods, he’s gone.

• • • •

Pinkertons on a Boone payroll showed up first. They were still questioning Leslie Anne when the police came.

She said “I don’t know” every way she could think to. She took too long to answer when they asked if Hardy was violent and suffered their significant looks.

She was still talking to them when the second truck was driven off the road.

Another driver had walked into the path of a speeding autorig, this one carrying eight thousand gallons of milk. The vehicle had no chance to control its evasion, the liquid in its tanker smashing against internal baffles but still amplifying motion in successive waves, lifting the tanker off the ground before it sailed over the edge of the overpass. Two more people died. The man in the road, later identified as a long-haul driver out of Memphis, walked into the woods and vanished.

The third truck was driven off the road a week later, described in news as a “Deadly Game of Chicken.” Then somebody called the men putting their bodies on the highway “Gamecocks” and it stuck.

The Gamecocks never released a statement, never made a demand. They never came in from the woods. Law enforcement would find evidence of encampments, but could not reliably separate them from the expected mountain indigents. Leslie Anne told the police that she didn’t know about the others, but Hardy had been trained to survive in the wild.

A Pinkerton Detective who went up into the mountains never came back, though who could say what happened to him?

Sometimes the Gamecocks would wait a week before de-roading the next truck. Sometimes a month. Sometimes a day. Body counts varied. Nobody knew how many they were. Hardy walked out four times.

People would leave crosses on the side of the road where victims of the Gamecocks’ stand had died. But they would also leave food and gifts on the wood’s edge where a Gamecock had vanished into the trees. As winter came, they left blankets, coats, and fuel.

They left Leslie Anne gifts, too. She’d find a casserole on her mother’s doorstep, a loaf of bread, garden-grown flowers.

Besides which, she was making okay money again. The town was hopeful and busier than usual. Somebody had to feed and care for all this new law enforcement, all these tragedy tourists.

The FBI tried to get Leslie Anne to go on TV and ask Hardy to come home, but she refused.

• • • •

Leslie Anne saw stickers on car windows, a silhouetted rooster lifting a barbed claw.

She started to see the Gamecock on protest posters at anti-automation rallies on the TV; in Richmond, in Boston, as far away as Paris, France. A rapper in Atlanta got the cock tattooed under his eye.

• • • •

In November, Woodrow drove down from New Jersey and knocked on Leslie Anne’s door.

She made them lunch and they ate on the back porch.

“You gotta get Hardy to come back in,” Woodrow said.

“I ain’t lying to you, Woodrow.”

“Or at least get him to stop.”

“I can’t get in touch with him,” she said. “I haven’t talked to him in . . . shit. Five months, I guess?”

“The algorithm is changing. It’s already written. They just gotta get the law changed a little bit and with what they’re paying, it won’t take long. Maybe Hardy can’t come home, but he’s gotta stop walking out in the road.”

Leslie Anne looked at her hands and waited for him to keep talking.

“They’re calling the Gamecocks terrorists. They killed too many people. The algorithm won’t dodge them anymore. If Hardy walks back out in the road, any truck will run him down rather than risk hurting another innocent.”

“What,” she said, not a question.

“It’s Trolley Problem shit. They killed too many people. Killing Hardy is a less lethal option than letting him live. There’s people saying we’re setting a dangerous precedent, but none of those people have money.”

“And you helped build this.”

“Leslie.”

“You’ll kill your brother.”

“That’s why I’m down here. Listen. Near the whole industry is automated. The trucks run twenty-four hours, there’s no reset. They’re making so much money. They can’t go back. My brother and the others, they’re not going to get what they want. There’s no version of the world where the bosses go back to hiring people to drive.”

“It’s evil,” she said.

“It’s money,” he said.

“Would you drink something?”

He said he would and she got a jar she’d been gifted of homemade infused with apples. It made the stuff smell sweeter but it still tasted like lamp fuel.

“You sure you haven’t heard anything from him?”

“Not a word. Not since July.”

“He’s your husband.”

“Well, he’s your brother.”

“How are you doing?”

“I can’t complain,” she said.

“Go on ahead and complain if you want to.”

It took her a second.

“I’m lonesome here and there, but I’m all right. Me and Hardy, we weren’t really doing so hot in those last few months before he left. We never talked much.”

“He’s got some walls,” he agreed.

“Not that I don’t miss him,” said Leslie Anne.

They sat on the porch dinking liquor.

“I’m not sure I can just sit here,” Woodrow said. “I think I’m gonna drive around.”

“Looking for Hardy?”

“Just driving. I’ll call it looking for Hardy, I guess.”

“Can I come?” Leslie Anne asked.

They drove for hours. They listened to the radio in his rented car. Leslie Anne dozed against the window, waking to watch trees flicker past.

He dropped her off after dark and headed for the room he’d rented in town.

And he stayed. He would type furiously in the coffee shop downtown, still working for the company up north that was intent on killing his brother. He would walk in the woods. He made himself visible; some idea that he would be a beacon Hardy could not help but be drawn to. Blood would out. Leslie Anne saw him most times she went grocery shopping, or collected her mail from the post office. He would wave, and watch her until she was out of sight.

He’d come see her at the house a couple times a week. She asked him:

“You think you’re gonna catch Hardy here?”

“I’m just coming around for the company.”

“It’s nice.”

He looked at the books on her shelf; they listened to music.

She realized what was going on and just let it happen.

New men were vanishing from their lives and joining the Gamecocks. People were writing songs about them. In the month Woodrow had been in town, Gamecocks stood two more autorigs off the road, with one fatality.

Woodrow came over to Leslie Anne’s for lunch. It was cold and raining and she told him she wanted him to stay.

It felt natural, as if they had been lovers for a long time.

He never spent the night, and anybody in town who would judge them had assumed they had been sleeping together since long before.

• • • •

Boone leaked the footage of the first terrorist death, then expressed official outrage at the leakage. Their statement talked about respect for the dead, about a return to normalcy.

The man’s face was familiar to Leslie Anne; she tried to remember him without the beard. He had been at Leopoldo’s funeral. He had stood trucks off the road before.

It was the same edit of furious forward motion from a succession of onboard cameras. The man walks out into the middle of the road, grinning with the confidence of somebody performing an old trick. There’s not time for him to realize it’s gone wrong, but the frame rate on the camera is high enough to catch the last half dozen moments of Zeno’s paradox. The man’s assured, excited face all but fills the screen in the moment before it goes red.

Only his feet remained intact inside his boots, flung more than fifty yards from impact.

“It’s all different now,” Woodrow said, watching it again on his phone.

“You have to stop this,” Leslie Anne said.

Woodrow shook his head.

They slept together one more time, but they could both feel the expiration date. The warmth had gone out of it. It was like sleeping with his brother.

The whole town, people all over the country waited for the next move. It could have been a mistake. It wouldn’t be allowed to happen again.

Three days later came the next impact.

Leslie Anne checked her phone automatically, tension that hadn’t been there returning. An element of lottery added to atrocity. An as-yet-unidentified Gamecock killed by a truck. She saw his face, his posture, the way he carried tension, arms cradled before him like a wrestler.

Hardy.

He’s terrified, tears on his face, walking out to his death. He cringes despite his best efforts, but keeps his pale brown eyes focused on the autorig’s forward lens right up to the moment they meet.

There’s a final frame before the pink wash, capturing a ninetieth of a second, showing Hardy’s face broken, bones cracked and disfigured inside the bag of his skin, eyes still alert though no longer pointing in the same direction. To everyone but Leslie Anne, it’s absurd in its horror, impossible to empathize, some deep sea creature dying of depressurization. To Leslie Anne, she sees this frame and thinks of Hardy half-waking in the dark from a nightmare, not conscious enough to explain his fear, clinging to her like a child.

Leslie Anne found Woodrow standing on the sidewalk, red-eyed and breathless.

He said: “There’s nothing I could have done.”

It didn’t sound like he was talking to her. It didn’t sound like he even knew the meaning of the words, had memorized some foreign phrase.

He drove away that afternoon.

The medical examiner brought Hardy’s ashes to Leslie Anne’s door.

She said, “Thank you.”

He said, “Whore. To this man’s own brother,” and poured the ashes on the ground.

She tried to stop watching the video footage, but all the bars except one had screens everywhere.

A week later, three Gamecocks came out of the woods together and stood in a line on the road before an onrushing autorig. One of the men’s knees buckled and the other two caught him. The algorithm made thousands of decisions in a split instant and then swerved into the trees at seventy miles an hour where it was demolished. Two cameras were still live long enough to capture the three men’s weeping jubilation, before the spreading fire destroyed all electronics.

When they attempted the same thing two days later, the three Gamecocks in the road were utterly pulverized. The algorithm had been changed. A company crew met the autorig thirty miles up the road to hose it off before it completed delivery.

So a month after that, it was six Gamecocks. Four of them were killed instantly, the fifth left broken and bleeding on the road, the sixth escaping unharmed.

The FBI got enough information out of the broken man to find an encampment of Gamecocks in the mountains on the North Carolina border. Two agents and eight terrorists were killed in the gun battle. No arrests were made.

As Hardy’s widow, Leslie Anne bore his debts. Posthumous civil suits brought against him by the families of people killed by de-roaded auto-rigs. The bank sent somebody to her mother’s house to tell her they were taking it.

A Gamecock walked into the highway wearing a policeman’s uniform, but the autorig’s facial recognition matched the man to a known domestic terrorist database and ran him down.

A month later, the bulge in Leslie Anne’s belly was plainly visible. She could only afford a visit to the automated clinic, where the machine probed and scanned her with lubricated metal and polymers, bombarding her unborn child with safe levels of radiation, proclaiming them both healthy and viable with sterile cheer.

There was protest and sabotage everywhere. People in cities were walking in front of taxis. Shooting delivery vehicles out of the sky. Demonstrators were carpet bombed by drones with irritants and soporifics; they were forcefully dispersed by algorithm-piloted armored motivational vehicles so that no human police would be put in harm’s way. Fewer protestors were injured by machine displacement than those faced with human law enforcement; it was empirically safer, more efficient.

Laws and regulations had been holding the machines back, not technology. We could have built them for years, and now that the field was open, the floodgates poured.

It was hard to stay mad about with everything else going on.

The last time Leslie Anne talked to Woodrow was by telephone. She didn’t tell him how pregnant she was, or that the child was his.

“How do they decide?” she asked him, over and over again, never getting a satisfactory answer.

• • • •

She climbed up the ditch to the edge of the interstate. Three lanes in either direction.

They had raised the speed limit again, now ninety-five miles per hour for anything autonomous, eighty for operated.

When the autorigs blasted northward past Leslie Anne, the slipstream tugged her toward the road, a sensation like vertigo. She swayed on the balls of her feet and held her fingers interlaced beneath her navel, feeling the weight of the unborn child.

She looked south, squinting against the sun and the dirty air and the heat radiating off the asphalt, and when she saw the right truck coming, stepped out into the road.

JT Petty

JT Petty

JT Petty is a writer and director of movies, video games, and television. His movies include the horror-western The Burrowers, and documentary S&Man (Sandman).  His work in video games includes Splinter Cell, The Walking Dead, and Outlast.