[This story is also available in the short story collection, It's Always the Apocalypse Somewhere.]
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The Final Run of Earl Gardner
Earl glanced in his side mirror. Flashing lights, red and blue, trailed away into the distance behind him. The sirens of the police vehicles wailed and whined. Earl chuckled, and pressed the power window button. The glass rose, cutting off the rushing wind and the screaming sirens.
Reaching out, Earl turned up the volume on his radio. "You boys wanna take a ride?" he called to the police officers, passive occupants of their self-driving vehicles. Earl whooped. "Let's take a ride!" He stepped on the gas pedal. The semi surged ahead.
It was the last such semi-truck in existence, he figured. Since the prohibition on human drivers had begun, Earl's right foot might be the last right foot in the world with free will. Certainly the last American right foot. He increased the pressure, watched the needle kick up past eighty. The last free right foot.
The big rig rumbled and shook as the speed increased to near ninety.
Ahead of him, driverless cars, sensing his approach, scattered like ants beneath the shadow of a giant shoe. He watched them, pulling calmly off to the shoulder in some cases, while those closest swerved recklessly, some to the shoulder, and others, right into the median cement retaining wall. Car logic processing its chances and those of its human passengers, and apparently deciding that slamming into the concrete was preferable to being run down by Earl's semi.
The trucker laughed mightily. His belly rolled and bounced. Reaching out, he undid his seat belt, sliding the shoulder strap out of the way. Let's see those suckers down there in those self-driving authoritarian monstrosities try that. Earl chuckled madly. It wasn't gonna happen, not as long as those things were in Drive.
The highway in front of him continued to clear itself, providing his barreling semi enough room to race onward. Flashing lights filled both side mirrors now, those self-driving cop cars peeking around his rear end on either side like timid little puppies. Earl leaned the truck over into the right lane then brought it back across to the left. The law hounds sniffing at his ass backed off.
Within those police vehicles, through the front windshields, Earl could see the animated, angry gesturing of the officers. Mere passengers, they gesticulated and motioned and waved at Earl, their lips flapping, four-letter words that Earl didn't need to hear to understand. His laughter grew manic and wild.
He put on his left blinker, then began edging to the right. Let's see what those so-called smart cars back there make of that, he thought. He reversed the directions, signaling right and gently drifting left.
He put on the hazards. Tapped the brakes. Honked his horn.
Ahead of him, cars continued wrecking in their haste to avoid the semi-truck baring down on them. Dozens of car lengths ahead, the self-driven vehicles moved off the road, signaling to one another their intention. Communicating via their antennas. Earl wished he could hear their talk—the frightened, panicked sound of those driverless vehicles, shouting warning to one another, cries of terror and fear as they slid off the highway, bounced off one another, turned into the wall. Tried to get away.
Earl laughed and laughed.
Park your truck, they had told him. Park it, buddy. That's your final run, pal. Out of the cab. Only he hadn't gotten out. He'd locked the door, cranked the engine. Belching and rumbling as he'd climbed through the gears, the semi responded to his every command. His feet on the petals, the shifting of gears, the turning of the wheel. The doors, Earl's to lock and unlock. The headlights. The blinkers. The belts.
Up ahead, Earl saw the next exit approaching. A glance down at his gauges told him that his final run was just about over. He might be the last remaining free driver, but even he couldn't make the truck move once the last of the diesel was gone.
Honking the horn, signaling left, flashing his brights, Earl shifted lanes to the right. Behind him, the wailing sirens and flashing lights moved with him.
A few vehicles, thinking that the exit ramp was going to be a safe haven, had pulled off the highway. Now, seeing the semi barreling straight for them, they jerked ahead, crossing over the shoulder and tumbling over an incline, their passengers safely strapped within. Earl whooped and hollered as car after SUV after van jumped off the exit ramp, throwing themselves over the edge, went tumbling down the slope. Earl honked his horn for the poor souls trapped within.
The ramp curved and Earl slowed his rig; still, he felt it go up onto the right-side tires and he very nearly lost it. Once it was back under control, Earl hunched over the wheel, sweating and panting, and glanced up at himself in the rear-view. This was it, he thought. Not the way he imagined when he was younger. But he would go out in the name of Freedom. What more could one ask for?
His eyes refocused on the road ahead.
At nearly sixty, Earl came roaring off the highway exit and straight through a red light. Self-driving vehicles passing through the intersection suddenly became aware of him. There was a mighty scramble as cars and trucks swerved wildly in every direction, bouncing over the median, spinning onto the shoulder, and even careening into one another, sliding and crashing and overturning.
Earl's rig went straight through the intersection, barely losing speed. He angled the big truck directly for the fuel station up ahead.
"Time to fill 'er up!" he hollered. He hooted and whooped as he crashed over the curbing. The shock bounced him out of his seat, and his head struck the roof of the truck's cabin. He held on tight, and as soon as he landed, pushed the gas pedal down one final time.
The rig growled and roared and raced ahead.
A few people saw him coming as they walked between station and pumps, and scattered out of the way. At the pumps, a pair of the self-driving vehicles sensed his approach. Earl could almost see the cars shaking with indecision. Should they stay put? Should they sprint out of the way? Forward? Reverse?
With a wild cry—"Freedom!"—Earl rammed directly into the nearest fuel island, smashing right through one of the pumps. Everything smelled like gas; there was a flash and an extraordinary noise. Earl's momentum carried him over the flattened pump to slam into a cowering, parked car. The little vehicle crumbled and stuck underneath the front of the rig and together they skidded to a stop against the brick wall of the fuel station.
"Hot damn!" cried Earl, watching in the side mirror as police vehicles swarmed all around, desperately trying to avoid pedestrians and other cars and each other.
An instant later, there was white light and roaring heat and fire.
The last free vehicle and driver were consumed by the flames of history.